People in the UK protesting over the death of George Floyd are more conscious of the coronavirus health threats than the government itself, a top professor has said.
Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University, spoke out against claims that large gatherings of people were risking a second spike of Covid-19, a virus that has killed more than 50,000 people in the UK so far. He said to pin a spike on the protests would be “ridiculous” given the general easing of lockdown restrictions.
A police officer killed Floyd last week by pressing a knee into his neck for almost nine minutes. The death sparked protests that have spread across the US and beyond.
Andrews concedes there may be an elevated risk to those who are taking to the streets to protest – but points out that people of colour are facing a battle on two fronts: persecution over their race, and the virus, with a new government report confirming that people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities are at significantly higher risk of dying from Covid-19.
The study, from Public Health England (PHE), looked at the risk factors for coronavirus and found BAME individuals have a much higher risk of death than white people, as do those from poorer backgrounds, men and anyone who is obese or suffering from diabetes.
Andrews told HuffPost UK: “There have been a lot of discussions about whether we should protest – specifically because of that, because we are more at risk – but this is a really important issue. It’s important to make their voices heard and try to do so as safely as possible
“What the George Floyd killing shows us is that racism is quite simply the difference between life and death.”
From June 1, the lockdown restrictions were relaxed in England to allow up to six people from separate households to meet up in outside spaces, whilst maintaining social distancing at two metres. Outdoor markets and car showrooms have also reopened now that the rate of infection, or R value, has remained consistently, if narrowly, at or below 1.0.
According to analysis published in The Lancet this week, modelling suggests for every extra metre further away up to three metres, the risk of infection or transmission may halve. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends people maintain a distance of at least a metre between each other.
Asked if it is possible to protest safely, Andrews replied: “It’s definitely difficult to maintain social distancing, but in the messages that have gone around about the protests there has been awareness of this; instructions to wear a mask and not to come if you live with somebody who is vulnerable.
“The protesters are probably working harder to shield vulnerable people than the government at this stage. Obviously it’s difficult in a protest to social distance but people are making the effort.”
Coronavirus transmission factors include congregating in confined indoor areas with others where coughing, sneezing and shouting may potentially spread infection droplets. Protesters in the UK have been photographed wearing masks and observing social distances in some settings, and stewards have even been on hand with signs urging people to self-isolate after the event.
He added: “Given that the restrictions are being lifted and I think the evidence is pretty clear that outside transmission is lesser – given all of that and the importance of the issue, I think if people want to protest I think they are right to do so.”
Andrews also points to the scandal involving Dominic Cummings as being a factor in why people are more willing to congregate.
He said: “The restrictions have been massively relaxed here plus, with the Cummings effect, I think it would be difficult to tell people not to go into the streets and protest. It would really be a double standard I think, from the government.”
Boris Johnson has stood by Cummings, who travelled 260 miles from London to Durham during the lockdown because of concerns over who would look after his son if both he and his wife were incapacitated by coronavirus.
Durham Police concluded he might have breached the regulations by taking a further trip to the beauty spot of Barnard Castle but took no further action.
A recent YouGov poll suggested that in total 7% of Britons may have used Cummings’ actions as their justification for their own breaches of lockdown rules.
Andrews plans to attend a Black Lives Matter event in Birmingham on Wednesday.
He said: “It wouldn’t be right to tell people that you’re not allowed to add your voice to this issue. America has the same problem, maybe a bigger problem in some ways, with the virus – and the same problem with racial disparities. And again you’re seeing lots of people out on the street, because you can’t stop everything because of the virus.
“Racism is a matter of life and death and that is why people are coming out of their houses to protest.
“Seeing the image of a Black man literally die in front of you, at the hands of the police, it’s like a tinder box. This is why people are protesting so much in the US. It’s a reminder of what racism is.
“In the UK, you are about three times more likely to die in suspicious circumstances at the hands of the police and then you think about the reason the police behave in this way – it isn’t just about the police, it’s about general devaluation of Black life.
“This protest is about all of those things. It’s not just about one person that was killed in America […]. It’s just something that brings everything together. If you look at the BLM movement, which was sparked in similar circumstances, their platform is far, far, far, far broader than just police violence. You can’t really separate police violence from everything else. It’s just the most vivid example of the problem but it’s certainly not the only problem.”
On Wednesday prime minister Boris Johnson said he could understand the grief and anger following the death of Floyd.
He told the Commons: “The only point I would make to the House is that protests should be carried out lawfully and in this country, protests should be carried out in accordance with our rules on social distancing.”
On Sunday, thousands of people marched across London to protest against Floyd’s death.
A reverend at a church on Trafalgar Square, where the protest started, said she was “very sympathetic” towards those marching, but expressed some concern about how close they were.
Reverend Sally Hitchiner, associate vicar at St Martin-in-the-Fields, told PA: “It’s showing there are people in the UK who care passionately about the situation in the US.
“Clearly they’re not following lockdown and social distancing, but I think there’s a huge amount of passion there and that’s overriding their concerns.
“It’s an issue that requires passion but at the same time there’s a huge amount of risk in what they’re doing.”
But would it even be possible to pin any spikes in coronavirus cases specifically to the protests?
Andrews does not think so. He said: “To highlight the protests [as the cause for a coronavirus spike] would be ridiculous.
“The way that people are going back to school, going to the beach, walking around the parks – people are out. The protests are not really separate to it. If we were in the middle of lockdown, I don’t think people would be out in the streets and you could make a stronger approach to this. People aren’t just rushing out on the street and not thinking about it.
“The government’s response has been mostly terrible but the messages have been pretty clear that it’s fine to go outside. It would be pretty impossible to trace anything back to protests.”
On Wednesday, anti-racism campaign group Stand Up to Racism is urging Britons to “take the knee” on their doorsteps at 6pm for a socially distanced protest in solidarity with protesters in the US.
SUTR said the campaign was inspired by the kneeling protest staged by American football star Colin Kaepernick in 2016 that has become synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement.
SUTR’s Sabby Dhalu said: “BAME communities are suffering disproportionately from Covid-19, economic decline and police brutality.
“We call on people to ‘take the knee’ on their doorstep in solidarity with George Floyd, at 6pm, Wednesday 3 June. We stand for justice for George Floyd and say Black Lives Matter.”
A separate protest has been taking place in London’s Hyde Park on Wednesday, while a further demonstration is scheduled for 1pm on Saturday in Parliament Square.
The Met Police said its approach was to engage with protesters and encourage them to follow social distancing rules. Officers arrested 23 people in London on Sunday, at least three of them for breach of Covid-19 legislation.