COVID-19 cases are spiking in cities throughout Iowa, including my home of Iowa City. The cause of the increase has been cause to deepen our social and political divides.
Businesses in Iowa started reopening just before protesters started holding frequent mass demonstrations against racism and police violence. The coinciding events give both factions of the culture war a reason to blame the other for making the pandemic worse.
Some of the people who protested against pandemic shutdown orders now are opposed to the racial justice protests. Others who advocated for more coronavirus prohibitions are defending the mass gatherings. Each side picks from noisy data and anecdotes to buttress their predetermined conclusions about complicated public health issues.
Recently, an Iowa lawmaker cited an oddly specific figure in a tweet — about 5 percent of new COVID-19 infections reportedly were people who attended a protest.
He told me he heard it on a conference call with a hospital executive. The hospital staff told me it came from the county government. County officials told me they don’t have any specific figures like that.
The truth is Iowa doesn’t have the testing and tracing capacity to say with such precision where community spread is happening. Analysts may have educated guesses, but right now it’s not the type of data the public can scrutinize and draw conclusions from.
Quite understandably, anti-government protesters might not be truthful with government contract tracers who ask about their recent protest activity. If governments really wanted to, they probably could build the kind of surveillance apparatus that would pinpoint individual infections to specific locations, but it would be a dangerous threat to our civil liberties.
This week, researchers published one of the first reliable analyses on COVID-19 and protests. CNN’s headline reported, “Black Lives Matter protests have not led to a spike in coronavirus cases, research says.”
The research cited by CNN and many other news organizations doesn’t have anything to do with the infection risk associated with protesting. The working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found protests had little net effect on the spread of COVID-19, but only because social distancing increased as non-protesters stayed home to avoid the protests.
Read past the headline on any such story, and you almost always find experts giving nuanced takes. They say there is no clear link between protests and COVID-19 infection rates, but they acknowledge that it’s hard to measure.
I have seen for myself that masks are prevalent at Iowa City protests, per public health officials’ recommendation. But I’ve also seen that social distancing is not possible in crowds of 1,000 people or more.
Really, it doesn’t matter whether protests are contributing to the virus’s spread. People have a God-given right to protest. More importantly in practical terms, governments couldn’t stop them if they tried. As we have repeatedly witnessed in recent weeks, people have the power when they show up in the streets together.
The protests are justified in and of themselves. There’s no need to contort or overstate the public health data to justify them.
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