Do demonstrations spread coronavirus? Major US study on George Floyd aftermath suggests not, and author says that’s good news for Israel
By Nathan Jeffay – The Times of Israel
Thousands protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem on August 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
The mass demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are likely to be relatively safe in COVID-19 terms, a researcher has said, after monitoring coronavirus rates in the aftermath of American racial justice protests.
An estimated 20,000 people took part in demonstrations against Netanyahu on Saturday. Some politicians have accused protesters of risking the nation’s health, and Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch even labeled a demonstration a “health terror attack.”
But analysts in the United States have cast doubt on the idea that demonstrations cause coronavirus surges, after analyzing protest rates and virus rates there.
“If you would have asked me in in early June, I may have expected at least some surge of the disease in the states with the biggest protests,” said Prof. David Lazer, a member of a research team that probed the topic, drawn from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers universities. “But when we had data, we saw states with the biggest protests were not states with the biggest surges.”
He said that the demonstrations were “very unlikely” to have driven the surge in infections in the US in June and July.
The research “is an encouraging signal that the protests in Israel won’t cause a big burst of cases,” he told The Times of Israel.
Israeli medical experts, with one eye on the situation in America, are relatively calm about the protests. Even Prof. Gabi Barbash, a former director-general of the Health Ministry who has become famous during the pandemic as a commentator on Channel 12 news.
“I’m not very concerned about demonstrations,” Barbash, who in other cases has urged caution and highlighted unheeded infection dangers, told The Times of Israel. “As of now, there was no documented increase of spread in coronavirus as result of these demonstrations.”
But some Israelis are convinced that double standards are at play.
Raphael Bouchnik-Chen, a former military intelligence colonel, has decried the fact that prayer gatherings are limited while large protests are allowed, suggesting that the right to protest should also be “subject to limitations.”
Some Haredim are fuming because Ukraine has closed its borders to foreigners to prevent the traditional annual pilgrimage to Uman over Rosh Hashanah, which starts September 18. The decision followed intervention by coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke to Ukraine’s leader about a ban, amid fears of a serious coronavirus outbreak there.
The Bratslav Hasidic sect, whose rebbe is buried there, issued a statement saying the government “has shown that religious citizens are second-class citizens.”
It claimed that while “protesting, flying everywhere and congregating in hotels and restaurants is okay,” in the case of those who wish to travel for religious purposes, “they’ll do everything to thwart and denigrate.”
Yet Barbash said that epidemiologically-speaking, the logic in allowing protests but not the Uman pilgrimage is sound. The Uman gathering is focused around high-density indoor gatherings “that simulate what we’ve seen in event halls, which are very dangerous,” he argued.
He also said that it would be unrealistic to expect a culture change around the Uman trip to make it COVID-19-safe, as that would mean expecting Hasidim to “changing the entire nature” of the pilgrimage.
Barbash cited the same logic as Lazer: People are far less likely to get infected outdoors than indoors, a principle repeatedly stated by health authorities, including the World Health Organization and the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lazer, a professor of political science and computer and information sciences at Northeastern University, who worked on the study with nine other academics, two of them from Harvard Medical School, said: “The hypothesis is that proximity outdoors isn’t that consequential for the spread of the disease. Our finding is consistent with the argument that shaming people from photos at the beach is not the right target, but rather it’s about crowded gatherings indoors.”
He noted that mask-wearing was widespread among American protesters and said that if Israeli protesters fail to cover their faces it could make his study less relevant to the anti-Netanyahu demonstrations.
Lazer acknowledged that some factors shaping statistics may have been specific to the US. For example, in states where protests were large, some non-protesters reportedly stayed home to avoid demonstrations, which may have pushed infection rates down. There is no suggestion that Israelis are staying home to avoid the protests.
But he said that despite some differences, the US study can be seen as providing some useful indications in assessing the health impact of Israel’s protests.
The team, which surveyed almost 40,000 protesters as well as tracking statistics, found that infection rates in the weeks after protests were, surprisingly, often higher in states where protests were smaller.
They wrote in their study, which has not been peer reviewed: “There is a clear and significant negative correlation between the percentage of a state’s population who reported protesting and the subsequent increase in cases of COVID-19.”
They found that Washington, DC, which had the highest reported rates of participation in marches at 13.7 percent, reported a relatively low rise in virus cases during the same period.
They didn’t offer an explanation for the negative correlation, but said that the important takeaway is that there isn’t a positive correlation.
“It is hard to square the negative correlation between the percentage of the state population that participated in protests and the change in new cases with the proposition that the protests were a major driver of the recent surge in cases in the United States,” the authors said.
Anticipating critics who suggest that the lack of an increase could be due to a lag between actual infection and symptoms that wasn’t picked up in the study’s timeframe, Lazer said: “These protests began over two months ago. If the protests were driving the spread, this would be more than enough time to observe the spread well beyond just the protesters, to the broader communities.”