Protesting in the pandemic

Submitted by AWL on 9 June, 2020 - 4:44 Author: Martin Thomas
BLM protest

A radio interviewer asked David Nabarro, World Health Organisation special envoy on Covid-19, what he’d say to the interviewer’s (or Nabarro’s) young adult children about the Black Lives Matter protests.

Nabarro replied: “Yes, of course, you go [to the protests]. Because it matters. This is so important.

“But you wear a mask, and you keep it on properly. You keep physical distance, and it can be done...”

He added: “It’s probably on the transport going to and from [the protests] that the risks are greatest”.

The (mostly) young people who have gone on the streets against racism are right to do that, and socialists should be there with them. The difficulties of protests in the pandemic should be seen in that context.

As one protester in London told us as she observed (approvingly) our precautions on our stall - contactless payment, anti-viral wipes, hand sanitiser, sanitised pens, etc. - “Yes, this coronavirus is important, but there are other things too”. We sought the least-packed edges of the crowd, too. But we were there.

If this movement can win significant pro-social-equality shifts in pandemic policy - like the shifts in police policy in some US cities and states - that alone will justify it. Conversely, if the killing of George Floyd were met with silence on the streets, that would be a blow against life and equality.

It is good that the cops have backed off from trying to stop the protests in Britain. It is good that a court in New South Wales, Australia, overruled a move by NSW’s conservative government to ban a Black Lives Matter protest there on virus-lockdown grounds.

Some of the Black Lives Matter protests have been carefully covid-distanced. In London on 6 June, organisers distributed face masks and sanitisers. Almost all protesters wore masks. But the numbers were so much bigger than expected that the core was crowded until protesters moved off in impromptu marches.

Nabarro added on the radio: “If you’re at all unwell, you don’t go, because you’re a threat to other people”. If your health is frail, or you live with frail people, likewise.

If we have a say in the details of future protests, we’ll advocate gathering in large open spaces to allow covid-distancing, marches rather than static protests. We would hardly expect to have a say, though, if even young and healthy socialists shunned the protests happening now.

To get the arguments into proportion, consider four points.

First, orders of magnitude. The best guess is that about one person in a thousand has the virus in Britain now. Maybe 50,000 people came to the 6 June protest, and those would be people with no or negligible symptoms, so if unlucky 25 had the virus.

The best guess is that with this virus a person socialising, working, etc. as in “usual” times would infect 2 or 3 others over the whole time they are infected.

On average, in a crowded protest for a few hours, and if unlucky, they’d infect one other? That’s 25 new infections. Compare it to 3500 new cases a day anyway.

And those 25 would be overwhelmingly young, with about 1/4000 chance of dying if they get the virus.

There is a risk, but of the order of a quarter of the traffic-accident risk from those 50,000 doing a one-hour bike ride. Much smaller than the risks inflicted by social inequality by day-after-day in workplaces without PPE and isolation pay, overcrowded housing, etc.

There is nothing inconsistent in demanding precautions in workplaces where people have to work every day, week after week, and running a small one-off risk to make a protest.

Second, the “mass gatherings” known to have created “clusters” for the virus have been ones with lots of indoor socialising, kissing, hugging, shaking hands (like the Gangelt carnival and the Daegu religious gathering). Not political demonstrations where the big majority of person-to-person “meetings” are fleeting.

Third, it is not for us to make dogma of the Tory-designed lockdown. The lockdown has its own toll, also hitting the worst-off hardest. We do not know which bits of the lockdown may have “worked” to slow infection, and which not. We are finding out, tentatively, only now that lockdowns are being eased bit by bit.

We never supported the ban on protests. We argued from the start that the labour movement must act as an “essential service”. As with other “essential services”, there is some risk, which we seek to minimise but can’t abolish.

Fourth: socialists’ general attitude when our people move for liberation, even if in ways we wouldn’t have chosen.

On 4 July 1917 the soldiers and workers of St Petersburg went on the streets against the Provisional Government to demand All Power to the Soviets. The Bolsheviks thought the action premature. Rightly. Even though the Bolsheviks managed to keep the protest fairly orderly, it led to a great backlash against the Bolsheviks, with Trotsky jailed until early September and Lenin forced into hiding.

About 700 people died on the protest. Perhaps the Bolsheviks counselled their more vulnerable members to stay home that day. Their core activists went with the workers, explaining and advising, but from within the movement.

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