The second wave of the virus was building long before the anti-racists protests began.
Gov. Reynolds never fully shut Iowa down in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. And now with businesses allowed to open at full capacity and social distancing guidelines only loosely enforced, experts have long predicted that cases of Covid would spike.
But the effort to blame protesters for the inevitable increase is already beginning.
At her news conference on June 11, Gov. Reynolds used the example of the protests to deflect blame away from Covid spread at businesses. In response to a questions about pending legislation that would make it impossible for employees to sue businesses for exposing them to the virus, Reynolds stated, “It would be very hard to identify where someone got COVID-19. I mean look at the protesters.”
In a call with state governors on June 8, Deborah Birx, Trump’s coronavirus response coordinator, warned of a potential spike in cases as a result of the protests.
This false narrative shifts the blame from elected officials who opened up the state against the advice of health experts and companies and long-term care facilities who failed to protect their workers and places it at the feet of the people protesting for their lives.
The protests began in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minnepolis police and have become organized efforts at systematic reform of systematic racism.
In an open letter, over 1,200 health officials and doctors supported the protests, noting, “We created the letter in response to emerging narratives that seemed to malign demonstrations as risky for the public health because of Covid-19. Instead, we wanted to present a narrative that prioritizes opposition to racism as vital to the public health, including the epidemic response. We believe that the way forward is not to suppress protests in the name of public health but to respond to protesters demands in the name of public health, thereby addressing multiple public health crises.”
Racism is a public health crisis and so is Covid. It’s not hypocritical to call out an inadequate response to the virus and attend a protests. They are, in many ways the same issue, people crying out for the systems and injustices that put them at risk to end.
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At the protests I’ve attended, I’ve seen far more people wearing masks than I’ve seen at the grocery store and definitely more than in bars and restaurants. And while the protests, will no doubt contribute to the cases, the increase began long before the protests did. In Dickinson County, home to two popular vacation spots for Iowans, the virus is already surging as businesses open back up. Before Memorial Day, Dickinson had only seven cases of Covid, now there are more than 80. There are still outbreaks at long-term care facilities and information about outbreaks at businesses is being supressed by the Governor, who refuses to release that information unless specifically asked by the press.
Infectious disease specialist, Dr,. Rosanna Rosa told me that she is skeptical of any claim that puts the blame of Covid spread on protesters. “The protests have not been the only opportunities for transmission though,” she said, “the state largely opened a month ago and has further relaxed measures. Whether we will be able to precisely quantify how many cases are attributed to the protests and how many to re-opening I don’t know, but can’t blame everything on the protests.”
Iowa’s cases have not dropped, only plateaued for the time being, and the information about cases and testing is not transparent. And while bars and restaurants fill up and people clamor to resorts and lakes and plan their vacations, our leaders are looking to blame protests for the spread. The increase in cases was always going to come, but now our leaders can deflect blame.
Our elected officials are all too unwilling to address either deathly reality.
“You have to take personal responsibility,” Reynolds said on June 10. It’s a line she’s repeated over and over. But what it means is, she’s refusing to take responsibility when Iowans contract Covid because they protested injustice or because they were forced back to work due to the inept policies and practices of a government more concerned about the economy than our lives.
On June 11, the Iowa Legislature unanimously passed a police reform bill that banned choke holds and made deescalation training for police mandatory. This is the same legislature we had two years ago. The same lawmakers who have been reticent to give felons their voting rights back, the same lawmakers who refuse to ban isolation rooms in schools. What changed? It wasn’t their hearts, it was the loud voice of so many people in the streets demanding that someone care about their lives.