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With mass protests over systemic racism, people trade 1 health risk for another

Nationwide protests against police violence toward black Americans have raised concerns about the potential spread of coronavirus. If people are not social distancing and are gathering in the thousands, are they exposing themselves to greater risk for COVID-19? And how should that risk be weighed? Lisa Desjardins talks to Dr. Georges Benjamin of the American Public Health Association.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The sheer magnitude of protests in the streets has raised public health questions as well. If people are not social distancing, and they're gathering in the thousands, even tens of thousands, are they exposing themselves to a greater risk of COVID?

    And how should that risk be weighed against public health concerns over the lives and living conditions of African-Americans?

    Lisa Desjardins explores some of that now.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Judy, those questions are part of what protesters, physicians, and public health officials have been weighing as people mobilize.

    In fact, nearly 1,300 public health professionals signed a letter supporting the protests, arguing that systemic racism is a health problem, that it has contributed or led to a disproportionate number of deaths among African-Americans. More than 20,000 African-Americans have died from COVID already. The numbers are incomplete, but indicate that blacks, who make up 13 percent of the population in the U.S., account for 24 percent of the deaths from COVID-19.

    Dr. Georges Benjamin is executive director of the American Public Health Association.

    Dr. Benjamin, I want to start right away with how we balance these two things. These protests are happening about a public health crisis, African-Americans being killed or harmed by police. But they're also happening in a public health crisis, the coronavirus.

    How do you weigh those two things?

  • Georges Benjamin:

    You know, it is a difficult decision.

    But people have to make a risk-based decision, recognizing that there is a risk in going out. They may get infected.

    But the challenge is that particularly African-Americans are fearful each and every day. And that's a risk that we have to take.

    Now, I tell folks that, if you are going to go out, then you need to protect yourself. You need to wear masks. You need to carry hand sanitizer. You need to try to physically distance as much as you can, but understand you are carrying a risk when you go in public like that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I want to ask more specifics about that for people going out.

    Should they be doing things like shouting, for example? And how do they keep from kind of getting into other people's space, even when they are in a small base? Also, how about the authorities? What should they be doing to try and minimize the COVID exposure for themselves and for the people there?

    We have seen a lot of reports about how the use of tear gas may be a health problem because of this. Can you talk to both of those groups?

  • Georges Benjamin:

    So, absolutely.

    So, to those individuals that are out there, again, just trying to stay as physically separate as you can, recognizing that, yes, you're going to talk, you're going to shout. The more you do that, the more likely you will put yourself at risk, but keeping your mask on as much as you can.

    And for the police, tear gassing is a problem. You should use that under very, very strict guidance. It causes inflammation of the lungs. It causes people to cough. They will take off their masks.

    This kettling, putting people in a in a little box, which brings them all together, is a problem. And, of course, the plastic bullets, those rubber bullets that they talk about the being nonlethal, are also very, very, very dangerous.

    But this is a global phenomenon, and we see that people are very concerned. And, as a nation, this is a phenomena. And people are making a risk-based decision that they'd much rather be out there letting people know that black lives matter, vs. — and taking that risk each and every day, vs. the risk that they take simply walking down the street being black.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I want to come back to that big picture in a second, but one more specific question about how this works.

    We're learning a little bit more about how the virus spreads. Do you have a sense of the best and worst case of what may happen in these crowd situations from the virus spread right now?

  • Georges Benjamin:

    Anybody that can tell you that they can really model it, they can't really tell you.

    But we do know that it will increase. We will get people that will be sicker. The good news is, the vast majority of folks that get this disease have a mild case. But the concern is for that 15 to 20 percent that have a very severe case.

    And just to point out that anyone with a chronic disease, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, lung disease, you are at greater risk. And we also know that communities of color, particularly African-Americans, are even more at risk, because they disproportionately have those diseases.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You are the executive director of the American Public Health Association.

    I have to ask you, looking in a much bigger way, which is our privilege to do here on "NewsHour," where would you place the role of race — this is a big question — in American health? What does it — what kind of effect does it have in our system?

  • Georges Benjamin:

    Race, tragically, is the original sin which causes health inequities.

    And we need to change things so that we value all people equally. And if we don't do that, we're not going to really be prosperous as a society. Race matters.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Some people are looking at these protests and saying, wait a minute, most states still are not allowing large gatherings.

    Even as we phase in some reopening, people aren't supposed to be meeting in groups of 25 or 50. But they are allowing these protests. You support these protests. Can you tell us why?

  • Georges Benjamin:

    You know, I believe everyone has to make a risk-based decision in life.

    I would prefer that George didn't get killed. I would prefer that we didn't have police brutality. I'm a strong supporter of sound policing. But when things get out of control, as they have in our society, then we have to speak out, we have to do something.

    And the American Public Health Association has been a strong proponent of human rights. And we would not be who we were if we did not believe in this social judgment movement that we're seeing.

    It is a risk. But, at the end of the day, if we don't take this risk right now, when are we going to do it?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Dr. Georges Benjamin of the American Public Health Association, thank you for joining us.

  • Georges Benjamin:

    Thank you.

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