Covid#11 – Black Lives Matter (5 June 2020)

As usual these days, London’s on edge. Plenty of people look relaxed, almost carefree, but few conversations steer clear of COVID-19 for long. Others are wilfully careless: a recent Yougov poll suggests that the government’s indulgence of Dominic Cummings has caused 7% of the population to observe lockdown rules less strictly than before. There are probably serene corners of the capital somewhere, but the prevailing mood feels odd: impatient but also bewildered, touched by fears that a second wave of infections is already on the way.

Uncertainties on the ground are intensified by gnawing political doubts on high. Even The Spectator tentatively proposed last week that Boris Johnson ‘is not up to the job’, and on Wednesday, the Leader of the Opposition nailed the ominous implications. Keir Starmer has had Johnson’s measure for years – ever since they both worked within metres of each other in Doughty Street – and he was spot on when he accused the prime minister of ‘winging it’. The government started without a plan, and as Starmer said, it’s now trying to ‘exit without a strategy’.

Curious to see if one particular aspect of the lockdown might be weakening, I revisited Speaker’s Corner last Sunday. It wasn’t long before I found a preacher: the first returnee since March. Dr Banda had strong views about the nature of angels, the power of prophecy and Star Trek, and he claimed to have met a million people and not lost a single argument. As he explained how he’d predicted the miracle of the mobile phone, I grew tempted to take him on – at which point, coincidentally enough, my dad called. Was I at the protest, he wondered? A TV report from Trafalgar Square had just shown hundreds of demonstrators demanding justice for George Floyd, the black man asphyxiated on 25 May by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

Within minutes, I was there. The crowd had dispersed, but it hadn’t gone home. Placards multiplied when I got to Westminster, and by the time I crossed the Thames, pedestrians were streaming along the pavement at pre-lockdown rush-hour levels. Wobbling along the road, I became part of the march, and soon found myself beneath the Stars and Stripes outside the US Embassy at Vauxhall. Accompanied by boos and supportive car horns, people yelled a slogan that’s become almost traditional since Donald Trump’s election – ‘your pres-ident’s a wan-ker’ – along with a chant unheard in this country until last week. Again and again, the crowd repeated three words spoken by George Floyd as he lay dying under a policeman’s knee: ‘I can’t breathe.’

The suffocation of a defenceless black man so powerfully epitomises what’s rotten in the United States under its current ruler that it barely crossed my mind not to protest. But the thought of being elsewhere wasn’t unthinkable. Far from it. As the crowd grew, I kept recalling the anti-vaxxer protest I went to last month, and a remark I’d made soon afterwards that ‘gathering en masse during a pandemic is inherently dumb’. Vauxhall could hardly have felt more different – COVID-19 deniers and 5G fantasists were nowhere to be seen, while many participants were making obvious efforts to keep apart – but that’s only half an answer to charges of recklessness. The risk of a disease spreading through a crowd is determined by probabilities, not good intentions.

The reason I was prepared to take a chance is obvious: the protest felt important. And, subjective as that is, the sentiment reflects an attitude to risk that’s almost universal. Even my dad, a shielded 83-year-old who assumes the worst of COVID-19, expected me to demonstrate against George Floyd’s murder and was pleased when I did. Those who’d disapprove of that particular mass gathering might make greater allowance for others: a beachful of sunbathers, perhaps, or reopened schools. Tory legislators thought it sensible last week to oblige elderly and vulnerable MPs to swarm in to the House of Commons in person if they want to vote. Actions taken and precautions foregone during this pandemic are affected not just by science, but by passions and varied beliefs about the public interest.

Observations like that skirt around the trickiest issue of all: whether more mass action is desirable. No one seems more torn on that point than Black Lives Matter UK itself. Last weekend, it unhappily disavowed Sunday’s protest by referring to ‘the implications of calling a mass march in the middle of a pandemic that is killing us the most’; it’s now tweeting legal advice about what to do in the event of arrest. And confrontations are certainly possible. A head of steam is building behind plans for a second rally outside the US Embassy on Sunday afternoon . . .

My support for demonstrations so far has been informed by another subjective factor: one so complicatedly personal that I still can’t really work out where rational thought ends and wishful thinking begins. My perception of risk has been changing. I’ve come to suspect that immunity to COVID-19 exists, and that it’s widespread and durable enough to be significantly reducing the likelihood of the virus’s spread. The opinion’s not provable – but it’s not based on utter ignorance either, and the precautionary principle that’s often invoked to justify stricter regulations doesn’t defeat it. To explain why, I’d have to unpack a controversy over herd immunity that would distract from the theme of this post – but a point tangentially connected to my tentative argument is directly relevant.

As most people know by now, COVID-19 has a discriminatory impact. Black and Asian key workers have been exceptionally likely to fall victim (at least three-fifths of all health care staff killed by the coronavirus in the UK have come from these communities) and the greater vulnerability of non-white people was confirmed by a Public Health England report last week. As an analysis, the study was useless – hundreds of informed opinions canvassed during its preparation were suppressed, and it didn’t even pretend to explain the disparities it described – but one fact buried deep within its pages was striking, all the same. Deaths from all causes are up at the moment – in large part, because people are neglecting very serious health problems – and black men are more vulnerable than anyone else. Confirmed COVID-19 deaths in this group haven’t been immensely higher by comparison to white men (just 10%), and yet black men were more than twice as likely to die in the six weeks after the lockdown began. Set against mortality rates at comparable periods between 2014 and 2018, they’re dying nearly four times as often as normal.

The PHE report’s methodology is dubious, not least because it assumes all COVID-19 deaths were properly recorded as such, but this finding is still remarkable – especially because all non-white minorities, women as well as men, seem to be dying of non-COVID-19 causes at considerably greater rates than the white population. A convincing explanation of these excess mortality levels would have to look into all sorts of variables, including poverty levels, occupation choices and genetic predispositions, but one conclusion is already crystal clear. Non-white people, above all black men, are suffering a great number of avoidable deaths as a consequence of not just COVID-19, but the lockdown too. That’s no reason to be complacent about this coronavirus – it’s a racially selective killer in its own right – but it illustrates complexities that shouldn’t be ignored when discussing health precautions. Black lives matter.

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