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Hundreds of people participate in a Black Lives Matter demonstration in front of Saskatchewan's Legislative Building in Regina, Sask., on June 2, 2020.Mark Taylor/The Canadian Press

The confluence of massive anti-racism protests and a once-in-a-century pandemic presents a unique challenge to public health and political leaders.

There are growing fears the mass gatherings could fuel the spread of coronavirus. While those concerns are legitimate, we need to keep them in perspective.

Outdoor gatherings pose less risk of disease transmission, particularly when people are on the move. Most protesters are also wearing masks. If you want to minimize the spread of disease, stop tear-gassing and jailing protesters.

Even if there is a risk of disease spread, it can’t be used as a convenient excuse to quash legitimate expressions of dissent. Throughout the pandemic, we have curtailed civil liberties for the greater good. But restrictions can’t be absolute or indefinite.

During the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, there have been people heading out each day to work. Some of them are health care professionals and first responders, but many more of them are low-wage workers, often from racialized communities, who have put their health at risk, working in grocery stores, long-term care homes, cleaning services and the like.

We know, anecdotally, that these workers have been disproportionally affected by COVID-19. Our failure to collect race-based data – a form of willful institutional blindness – only makes matters worse.

As we open up the economy, more low-paid workers in retail, food services and factories will crowd onto public transit, send their children to daycare and return to work to make our lives more comfortable. Some of those same workers, their children, and their neighbours, will take to the streets to demand justice.

To expect that they work in difficult situations, but, at the same time, deny them the right to demonstrate for a better life, would be rank hypocrisy. Thousands of people protesting police killings, racial injustice and inequality is not the same as thousands of people attending a football game, or partying on the beach.

Racism is a public health crisis, one that is as destructive and deadly as any virus.

Systemic racism merits to be tackled with the same urgency or determination as the coronavirus. Political leaders are failing to do so and they are being called out on it by a growing protest movement.

In the United States, the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer, has blown the lid off a simmering cauldron, and it is spilled over into Canada. (And let’s not for an instant pretend that anti-black, anti-Indigenous, anti-Asian racism doesn’t exist here.)

The issues that killing raises, in the U.S., in Canada and elsewhere, must be confronted, even if the timing is inconvenient, and even if the protests lead to some collateral damage in the form of coronavirus infections.

So, how should public health leaders respond to these protests?

Not with “stay at home” platitudes. Not with dire warnings of all our sacrifices being undone.

Public health must be philosophically consistent, at once preaching harm reduction, such as asking people to wear a mask if they’re going to protest, and speaking up forcefully for the marginalized.

The singular focus on battling coronavirus has been appropriate, but it cannot be at the exclusion of everything else.

This is a time for public health to highlight what really matters to health – the socio-economic determinants, of which race is one. More than anything, this pandemic has shone a spotlight on long-standing inequalities in society.

The mass institutionalization and systemic indifference toward our elders has resulted in thousands of deaths in long-term care. The personal-support workers caring for them – often from racialized groups – have also received some long-overdue attention and even a bit of a pay boost. Their situation has also provided an uncomfortable reminder that racialized workers too often get paltry wages and minimal benefits for backbreaking work.

That is only one example of systemic racism and discrimination. Low income, in turn, can condemn people to live in neighbourhoods with sub-par housing, second-rate educational facilities, degraded physical environments, unsafe streets, violence and more. Every one of these elements is essential to good health and, when they are denied, unhealthiness is perpetuated, in a vicious circle.

The message the protests are delivering is: Enough of the soul-crushing brutality – physical, economic and social.

The key to ending an epidemic is breaking the chains of transmission. That applies to injustices as much as pathogens.