Pandemic diary 2020-06-03: Mad world

I cannot not say that I think it is madness.

I think it is madness that the United States is engaged in a cycle of mass protest and suppression while in the thick of an uncontrolled deadly pandemic. Some of you are fond of imagining what the history books will say, after that subject’s long arc has finally run its course, about this or that policy atrocity. What will the history books say about people crowding into streets to protest or to suppress, people crowding into vans and buses to detain or to be detained, people crowded in holding cells as the detained, while a deadly respiratory virus travels from lung to lung to lung?

This is not to say that I blame the protestors. Predictably enough given my politics, if you ask who I blame I will blame the police. From my vantage, however unavoidably unrepresentative that may be, many police departments have responded even to peaceful (but disruptive) protests with escalation, rather than accommodation and protection. They have tried to suppress the protests rather than work with the great majority of protestors who do not condone looting and vandalism, but who do demand to block roads, to surround buildings, to exact a toll on commerce and convenience but not life and property. I worry, perhaps unfairly, that police have intentionally ignored or even encouraged crimes against property to serve as pretexts for aggression against peaceful protestors.

Maybe you disagree. Great. History will have its verdict there too (although we should never imagine that the verdict of history is God’s truth). But it seems to me we all have a common interest in finding some detente that would get us through the next year or so without crowding into streets and precinct houses.

I think “civil strife” in the US is overdue and unsurprising. In ordinary times, I would be sad and worried, but also hopeful that these convulsions might put us on a better path than the slow social collapse and rising stock market of the last decade. For me, watching it all, it is hard not to feel a chord of elation. Here finally is a new civil rights movement maybe strong enough, maybe serious enough, to actually remedy our national sin and so redeem us all. (Intellectually, there are problems with this theory. But emotionally the pull is strong.)

These are not ordinary times, however. The pandemic is not a plot laid by capitalists and racists to suppress the black, brown, and poor. Two weeks ago it was the capitalists and racists endangering us by pretending the virus was under control or no big deal. It was easy for me and people with my political sympathies to condemn that. Now we are… nuanced. Perhaps reasonably! You can argue (I’d quickly agree) that pursuing the cause of racial justice is a more important good to weigh in the balance against pandemic harms than a pool party, or getting to go to the gym. Less dismissively, you can point out that the miseries of business owners and unemployed people, many of whom have not been made remotely made whole, can be relieved without creating public health hazards by offering more generous public support, but there is no simple switch we can flip to end police violence and racism. Perhaps the social and political good these protests might do outweigh the harms at the margin they do to pandemic control. There’s a case to be made.

But let’s be conscious of the scale of potential harms, of the risks we are collectively taking, with “we” here including the protestors and the police in their codependent dance, people like me and perhaps you on the sidelines, encouraging one group or the other, public figures who could perhaps diffuse the situation, the public as a whole. Maybe the “reopeners” were right after all that the hazards of this pandemic are actually pretty manageable. Maybe the virus simply does not transmit very easily outdoors and in heat, maybe widespread mask-wearing dramatically reduces its infectivity, maybe loads of people can hang out outside, even chanting and shouting, if they do their best to stay masked when they are not chanting or shouting and at least six feet apart. Maybe the number of people getting arrested and dangerously confined is too small to make a dent in the pandemic, however dramatic it all looks on TV.

But maybe not. These are things we just don’t know. Jumping on them is accepting risks most of us thought premature when Georgia and Florida and Texas started “opening” a month ago (now we begin to see a mortality bump). This current cycle of current protest and suppression might prove not so terrible, epidemiologically speaking. Or it might prove really terrible. We don’t know. If it is really terrible, how really terrible would it be?

Astonishingly, miserably, your lifetime risk of getting killed by the police, if you are black and male, is about one in a thousand. That is a fucking crazy death rate, a blot and a stain and an ineradicable shame on our political community. At a moral level, nothing can minimize that or undo the grief and fear that black communities have and continue to live with. Mercifully, COVID-19 does not inflict the same degree of shame and anger upon us as police killings. It is, to a certain degree though not fully, an act of god rather than an act of man. But COVID-19 does inflict grief, fear, and death upon us.

Over just a few months, your risk of dying of COVID as a New York City resident was roughly two out of a thousand. [*] That is twice a black male’s lifetime risk of death-by-cop. That two-per-thousand death rate is lower than the true number for black residents, and especially black male residents, since the disease killed black and male disproportionately. As far as we can tell, maybe 25% of NYC residents were ever infected by the virus. (We think as of mid-April about 20% had been infected, but infections have been subsiding since then.) New York’s epidemic was belatedly suppressed. A resurgent epidemic could bring the death rates of five or six per thousand, and significantly higher for black men, to New York City and everywhere else.

Black lives matter, and the disproportionate dying by black men of COVID-19 is almost certainly caused in great part by the socioeconomic conditions that current protests mean to remedy. But the current protest/suppress/escalate cycle in the streets risks a whole lot of lives, black lives and other lives. It risks death at a scale of many years of police killings. Obviously, the cause of addressing racist police violence cannot be put on pause. But is there any way we can shift towards less risky means of pursuing it?

Even as a matter of politics, the pandemic tilts towards finding other means of pursuing justice. Always with disruptive protest, movements have to balance the effectiveness of visibility and pressure against the possibility of backlash and retrenchment. Often “risk of backlash” is wielded disingenuously, a classic rhetoric-of-reaction perversity claim. You, dear reader, will have to decide whether this essay falls into that category. In ordinary times, my views on this stuff are nuanced.

But consider the following scenario: A few weeks from now, while protests are ongoing, cases and then mortality really spike. For now, the public-at-large seems remarkably supportive of the protest movement. But if conventional wisdom comes to blame it for a reinvigorated epidemic and all the miseries that attend it, if the public (black and not) can be persuaded that “burn it all down” rhetoric translated into a wildfire of indiscriminate disease, the public sympathy that political progress requires may curdle into hard hostility. A nation convinced that a “hard left” or “black activists” hate America so much they recklessly or intentionally caused hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths will not be fertile ground for justice or social democracy.

I am not saying that people should stand down now. Acts of violent suppression make it untenable for protesters to stand down. I am saying that the costs and risks of this form of political struggle, at this time, are dizzyingly higher than they usually are due to the pandemic (and even in usual times, the stakes are very high). I am pleading that all sides take into account the very real risk of mass death that attends the path that we are currently on, and find ways to deescalate from epidemiologically dangerous tactics without betraying causes and values that are inviolable.

I don’t know exactly what this might look like. Obviously I can’t speak for people in the street, or behind riot shields, or in the White House. But to be constructive, I’ll hope first that police revert to a strategy of accommodate, protect, and deescalate, that they strive to minimize arrest and detention (which we know are conducive to disease spread), that they enforce the law when people are engaging in actual violence but tolerate a broad range of civil disobedience that does not cause imminent harm. I’ll hope that the movements on the street coalesce around some set of very concrete demands that won’t be sufficient to remedy centuries of white supremacy, but that will address their most urgent concerns and allow them to declare this battle won. I’ll hope with Pat Robertson (really?) that public officials at all levels adopt a tone of conciliation and openness rather than militarization and threat. I’ll hope.

[*] I am using the raw NYC health department numbers, restricting to “confirmed” cases, using 8.4M as the population of NYC. I’ve seen reports of a five per thousand NYC population mortality rate, but I don’t understand how that is computed.

Update History:

  • 6-June-2020, 7:35 p.m. EDT: “…roughly two out of a thousand risk death by cop.” Thank you commenter Brian Slesinsky

4 Responses to “Pandemic diary 2020-06-03: Mad world”

  1. Very much reflecting many of my thoughts here. I observed to a friend that the media have rightly covered the Floyd story and the unrest following it, but to the near-complete exclusion of the pandemic, which has not changed course. The plateau and mild recession of the virus spread has been largely related to the lockdown. I’m fairly confident there will be a spike of the virus within the next few weeks as a result.

    I do think some governments have tried to accommodate civil disobedience, in a manner that shows flexibility for non-violent direct actions. This evening, for example, a large march in San Francisco went well after the curfew, but since there was no related violence, the police showed restraint. It’s my view that much of the “violence” is actually escalated by aggressive policing, where restraint would prevent a clash.

    As to the protesters, I think they are overwhelmingly young, and I think there is a sense of invulnerability based on the fact that the mortality rates for people under 45 are relatively low. See the data for “Deaths by Age Group and Sex” here:

    The big uptick in deaths starts at the third quintile, at age 45, and increase in the next two quintiles, sharply over age 75. I think the age asymmetry must be factored into any concept of how to minimize risk in a search for balance.

  2. Effem writes:

    So if police respond they are engaging in “escalation” but if they don’t respond they “intentionally ignoring” crime for nefarious purposes? I’ve always found your blog somewhere I can go for clear-headed nuance on complex issues, but I have to admit it feels less so lately. That’s not a criticism (I’m thankful you invest the time to write); just an observation.

    If we are going to use policing as the lightning rod for a civil war, then I think we need much more in-depth thinking. Whenever i delve into the topic I seem to come away thinking the dominant narratives just aren’t well supported. Or at least aren’t supported without bringing in all sorts of non-policing arguments (which is fine, but certainly adds confusion). Maybe it’s something you can write on? slarestarcodex has a good piece from 2014 which might be a good starting point….I wish there were more like it.

  3. FrankM writes:

    Thanks for your good writing on complex subjects. I discovered you about a decade ago and read you often during the GFC, but then it tailed off. I’ve rediscovered you during c19 and it has helped me a lot. Thanks.

  4. Brian Slesinsky writes:

    Re: “Over just a few months, your risk of dying of COVID as a New York City resident was roughly two out of a thousand risk death by cop.”

    I’m not parsing this. Did you leave out a word?