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Is the Fight for Human Rights & Racial Justice Overriding the Coronavirus Risk?

Black Lives Matter protest in London May 31. Credit: Tara Carey / Equality Now

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 2 2020 (IPS) - The deadly coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed the lives of over 372,000 people worldwide, has reinforced the concept of “social distancing” which bars any gathering of over 10 or 20 people – whether at a social event, a wedding, a political rally or even a funeral.

In the US, guidelines laid down by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are loudly clear: “limit face-to-face contact, stay at least 6 feet (about 2 arms’ length) from other people. Do not gather in groups. And stay out of crowded places and avoid mass gatherings.”

But all those warnings have been unceremoniously jettisoned as hundreds and thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in several cities, including in Hongkong, Argentina, Lebanon, Brazil, Israel, Ukraine and India, and most recently in the US and UK.

In the United States alone, where coronavirus deaths have exceeded 103,000, demonstrators in riot-torn cities in 31 States have openly defied edicts both from medical experts and city and State authorities resulting in curfews.

The defiant stand has triggered the question: is the fight for human rights and racial justice overriding coronavirus threats — even as thousands have participated in demonstrations violating stay-at-home orders and stoking fears of a sharp increase in infections upending virus control efforts?

The Mayor of the city of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, was quoted as saying: “If you were out protesting last night, you probably need to go get a COVID test this week. There is still a pandemic in America that’s killing black and brown people at higher numbers.”

Ironically, some of the protestors who set fire to police vehicles, gas stations, post offices, banks and electronic stories, were masked to avoid infections. But others were mostly mask-less.

A new study by the University of Manchester in the UK, released last week, has found that people are still willing to take part in protests in large numbers, despite the inherent dangers from the spreading coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Olga Onuch, an Associate Professor in Politics [Senior Lecturer] at the University of Manchester and principal investigator and lead author of the study, told IPS: “My sense is that like in the US, Israel, Hong Kong, Brazil and beyond, large groups of people will continue to protest even when faced with infection. I think all the evidence points to more, not less protests,”

Asked if these demonstrators were risking their lives fighting for human rights and racial justice, Dr Onuch said: “I am not an epidemiologist but it would be my understanding, especially given the level of Covid-19 infections, I would expect that the risk of contracting the disease during mass gatherings like protests, is very high indeed.

“Yes, I believe they are risking their lives in participating in protests”.

“But it is my hypothesis that people’s patience is lower as a result of the pressures of confinement, and thus, people are actually more likely to get engaged when they see a clear violation of basic rights”, said Dr Onuch, who is also an Associate Fellow in Politics at Nuffield College, at Oxford University.

The study said that in Argentina, which has seen several mass protests since the end of the dictatorship in 1983, readiness to protest is typically high.

But even by Argentine standards, the researchers were shocked to find that 45% of people were still happy to protest despite the country’s lockdown and rising rates of COVID-19 infections.

Black Lives Matter protest in London May 31. Credit: Tara Carey / Equality Now

Norman Solomon, executive director at the Washington-based, Institute for Public Accuracy, told IPS that some people ignore social distancing health-protection guidelines while partying on beaches or congregating in bars and other venues.

“Other people ignore those guidelines while nonviolently protesting injustice. I’d certainly say that such protesters are quite admirable compared to those who violate the guidelines merely in order to have fun,” he added.

“That said, the guidelines exist for valid reasons and should be adhered to whenever possible; the risks endanger not only those who choose to ignore the guidelines but also those who are exposed due to the unfortunate choices of others”, declared Solomon.

The protests, which in some US cities extended through seven consecutive nights, virtually reached the steps of the White House last week as the Secret Service was forced to rush the US president into an underground bunker for his safety.

The New York Times reported on June 1, there are parallel plagues ravaging America: the coronavirus crisis and police killings of black men and women.

The initial demonstrations resulted from the brutal killing of an unarmed black man George Floyd by a white police officer in the city of Minneapolis which was caught on-camera and went viral on Facebook.

According to the Times, there were at least 600 Americans who reportedly died from Covid-19 on a single day – Sunday—when the demonstrations were in full swing.

Commenting on the growing protests, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said at his daily briefing on Sunday: “You turn on the TV and you see these mass gatherings that could potentially be infecting hundreds and hundreds of people after everything that we have done. We have to take a minute and ask ourselves: ’What are we doing here?”

Tara Carey, senior media and content manager at Equality Now, who witnessed the London protests on Sunday, told IPS times of crisis exacerbate inequality, and this had been brutally exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionally affected disadvantaged and minority communities around the world.

“The widespread harm caused by coronavirus has compounded pre-existing discrimination and political unrest, creating a tinder box atmosphere in which many people feel passionately that the dangers posed by systems of oppression must be challenged on the streets, even if this involves the possibility of contracting a potentially deadly contagious disease”, she argued.

From the USA to Lebanon, the UK to Hong Kong, demonstrators have risked both infection and arrest to join together in demanding change, she noted.

“Participating in political protests often comes with personal risk and COVID-19 has added to this. The right to demonstrate against injustice and persecution is a fundamental human right and it is important for people to think about how to protest safely.”

“For those participating in street protests, they must weigh up the health risks to themselves and those around them. For those who think the risk is too high, there are other ways to confront oppression and stand in solidarity,” she noted.

“Speaking out in support, contacting political representatives and other duty bearers, and donating to organizations that provide support to those in need and campaign for change, all have an important role to play,” declared Carey.

Commenting on her University’s survey, Dr Onuch said: “Our findings suggest that we shouldn’t be surprised if we continue to see protests, and we shouldn’t assume that these are younger people who are less likely to fear contracting the virus.”

“More importantly, governments must not think that they have a free pass because of crisis. Not only do governments have to weigh the trade-offs between public health and the economy they also need to consider how to respect their citizens’ right to protest, even during a pandemic.”

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