BLM protests haven't led to rise in Covid-19 cases in US as many stayed home over safety concerns, claims study

The experts said individuals who didn't wish to attend the protests, perhaps due to fear of violence, may have chosen to avoid public spaces


                            BLM protests haven't led to rise in Covid-19 cases in US as many stayed home over safety concerns, claims study
(Getty Images)

Sparked by the killing of George Floyd in police custody, the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests have brought a new wave of attention to the issue of inequality within criminal justice. However, some public health officials have warned that mass protests could affect social distancing efforts, spurring a resurgence of Covid-19 cases in the US. Researchers say they found no evidence that the protests led to a surge in Covid-19 cases during the more than three weeks following the beginning of protests.

“We conclude that predictions of broad negative public health consequences of Black Lives Matter protests were far too narrowly conceived,” says the team in their findings published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

Largescale protests could impact social distancing and disease transmission through two key populations, those who attend the protests and those who do not, say experts. The researchers argue that while the protests themselves were large gatherings that do not match well with social distancing guidelines, the protesting population is not the only one that may have a “behavioral response.” What they mean is other individuals who did not wish to participate in the protests, perhaps due to fear of violence from police clashes or general unrest, may have chosen to avoid public spaces while protests were underway. “This could have an offsetting effect, increasing social distancing behavior in other parts of the population. The net effect, on both social distancing and on the spread of Covid-19, is thus an empirical question, and the focus of this study,” says the team. 

For their analysis, the researchers collected data on protests from May 25, the day Floyd was killed, through June 20, from 315 US cities with municipal populations estimated at 100,000 or more in 2019. Searches for protests were carried out by the Center for Health Economics & Policy Studies (CHEPS) at San Diego State University using internet searches for local and national news articles, reports from local police departments, and communications from mayors’ and governors’ offices. Of the 315 largest US cities analyzed, the team documented that 281 cities saw a protest while 34 did not. They also used anonymous cellphone tracking data from SafeGraph, Inc., as well as data on the local prevalence of Covid-19 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since health experts say that coronavirus symptoms take anywhere from two to 14 days to manifest in infected persons, the study only looked at the growth of new Covid-19 cases from May 25 to June 20.

The analysis suggests that cities that had protests saw an increase in social distancing behavior for the overall population relative to cities that did not. The team says they found no evidence that net Covid-19 case growth “differentially rose” following the onset of Black Lives Matter protests and “even modest evidence of a small longer-run case growth decline.” The researchers determined that social distancing behaviors went up after the protests as people tried to avoid the protests altogether. Non-attendees may perceive a higher risk of Covid-19 infection due to the protests and choose to stay home, they explain. “Our findings suggest that any direct decrease in social distancing among the subset of the population participating in the protests is more than offset by increasing social distancing behavior among others who may choose to shelter-at-home and circumvent public places while the protests are underway,” they write.

The researchers determined that social distancing behaviors went up after the protests as people tried to avoid the protests altogether. (Getty Images)

The experts say while it is almost certain that the protests caused a decrease in social distancing behavior among protest attendees, “we demonstrate that the effect of the protests on the social distancing behavior of the entire population residing in counties with large urban protests was positive.” “Likewise, while it is possible that the protests caused an increase in the spread of Covid-19 among those who attended the protests, we demonstrate that the protests had little effect on the spread of Covid-19 for the entire population of the counties with protests during the more than three weeks following protest onset,” they explain. 

The researchers say there are other possible explanations for the findings, such as avoiding travel outside the home due to additional traffic congestion or street closures, or due to lack of available activities from business closures near protest sites. “It is possible that the result of the suggestive lower spread of Covid-19 relative to non-protesting cities is due in part to the characteristics of the protesters. For example, protest attendees may have mitigated the spread of Covid-19 via infection countermeasures such as wearing masks. The attendees may further be a selected subpopulation of younger individuals who, if infected, have less severe symptoms and thus may never get tested and not show up in the official Covid-19 numbers,” the findings state.

According to the researchers, the analysis makes an important contribution not only to the current discussion around policies for controlling the spread of disease but also to the understanding of the human behavior of the general population during periods of civil unrest. “When considering the results’ implications for the entire population: public speech and public health did not trade off against each other in this case. Our findings also highlight the importance of understanding the behavior of all relevant populations when analyzing the realm of social science in general, and public health in particular: the most visible portion of the population is not always the primary driver of the outcome of interest,” write the authors.

For more information and statistics on the coronavirus pandemic, click on the Newsbreak tracker here