Protests Will Likely Spread The Coronavirus. These Doctors And Nurses Are Protesting Anyway.
“I’m an African American first before I’m a physician,” one doctor said.
Anna Maria Ruiz is all too aware of the human toll of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe. As a critical care nurse who has treated patients in their darkest hours, she fears the possibility of being outnumbered by severe cases, running out of personal protective equipment, and getting sick herself.
But Ruiz, who is Afro-Latina, lives in fear of something else, too: racism, discrimination, and violence against black Americans.
The police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, both unarmed black people, have ignited protests across the nation that are exploding in size and number by the day. Weeks of social distancing had finally led to a decline in cases for Ruiz to treat at her hospital in central Texas, but when a demonstration sprung up in downtown Austin last weekend, she felt compelled to be there — despite what she knew was the very real threat of the coronavirus spreading further as a result.
“I just feel like it’s too important to not show up for,” the 27-year-old told BuzzFeed News. “I feel like it’s about me fighting for my rights, my partner’s rights, my father’s rights, my brother’s rights, my friends’ rights. It’s everybody’s fight to me.”
Doctors, nurses, residents, medical students, and others in the medical field are just some of the thousands of protesters flooding town squares and downtowns. To some, their participation may seem controversial or hypocritical. In interviews with BuzzFeed News, a half-dozen health care providers who attended recent events all said they were deeply concerned about the pandemic, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans.
And they, like other health experts, believe that the crowds will likely spread the virus, especially when police use tear gas and conduct mass arrests. A surge in coronavirus cases will likely be hitting their hospitals in the coming weeks.
But while the decision to attend was tough for some, they all said they were deeply distraught by the racial inequality that runs through seemingly every facet of American life — from the economy to education to the pandemic itself, where black people are dying at higher rates. They said they see themselves as advocates for patients, not just inside the hospital but outside of it as well. Police brutality and systemic inequality are so oppressive, they said, as to leave them no choice but to publicly take a stand.
Those forces, they noted, are also a public health crisis.
As Dr. Jessica Edwards, a family medicine physician in New Braunfels, Texas, put it: “I’m an African American first before I’m a physician.”
All the health care workers interviewed said that they wore masks, tried to keep a distance from other protesters, and felt that the vast majority of people around them were doing the same. Several also came prepared to serve as medics in the event of police officers unleashing tear gas, tasers, flash grenades, pepper spray, and rubber bullets on crowds.
Earlier this spring, a smaller group of people gathered across the country to protest — in this case, against the stay-at-home-orders that have helped stem the transmission of the virus, but have also paralyzed businesses and driven historic numbers of Americans out of work. Groups of protesters flooded statehouses, some of them armed, and were criticized for potentially and needlessly spreading the virus as a result.
Should the same criticisms apply to the current protests? To the nurses and doctors interviewed for this article, the difference boiled down to a cause that is more widespread and fundamental, even existential.