To survive COVID, we need science, not politics

This group at Lake Merritt on May 8 ignoring the rules to wear a mask and keep 6 feet apart appears to be mostly well off white folks. – Photo: Yolanda M. James, SF Chronicle

by Kheven LaGrone

Homeless rights activist Nino Brown lives in a homeless encampment at Lake Merritt. He worries about a new wave of the coronavirus pandemic brewing in Oakland. Scientists are still learning about the virus, but most would agree that Brown describes a perfect condition for incubating a pandemic. 

Brown estimates that a large number of people living in the homeless encampments are using drugs. They share the pipes they use to smoke their drugs. If a drug user has the virus, this increases the risk of spreading it within the encampment. In addition, homeless people move around from encampment to encampment. This increases the risk of spreading the coronavirus to other encampments throughout Oakland. 

Not far from Brown’s encampment, crowds of people come to Lake Merritt in defiance of science-based orders to quarantine at home. The crowds socialize casually and are often lax about complying with social distancing. Many wear no masks. 

People from the encampments walk and bicycle through the crowds as well. Like everyone else, they often wear no masks. If they don’t have the virus, they are at risk of picking it up from groups at the lake and taking the virus back to people living in their encampment. If they have the virus, they can spread it to people at the Lake. The people socializing at the lake can pick up the virus and take it home to their families, friends and co-workers.

I saw a man at the lake who was visibly sick. He was sitting in his car. He stuck his head out the door to sneeze. He did not cover his mouth. Luckily, I saw him soon enough to protect myself.

Two weeks later, on May 27, 2020, the state’s Department of Health Services reported a record number of new coronavirus cases and deaths.

Those Oaklanders are not the only people defying science during the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. On April 24, 2020, thousands of protesters mobilized at Wisconsin’s capitol building demanding that the governor end the shelter-in-place order. Many did not follow the guidelines to wear masks and keep a social distance. Some even held up signs saying that the pandemic was just a lie.

The protesters had dismissed scientists’ and other experts’ warnings about reopening the economy. The experts felt it was too soon to relax restrictions. The experts feared that the virus will make a comeback that could be even harder to contain. 

The protesters addressed the pandemic with politics and not science. They might have brought some victory to the virus. Soon after their protest, Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services reported that over 72 people might have contracted the virus at the protest.

On May 13, 2020, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the state’s stay-at-home order. The decision was not based on science. Two weeks later, on May 27, 2020, the state’s Department of Health Services reported a record number of new coronavirus cases and deaths.

Opening a city should be based on science, not political pressure. As the public, we need to understand how science is used. More important, we should respect it. 

The quarantines and shutdowns are not just arbitrary political orders. Scientists and experts used what they knew to create guidelines to try to contain the pandemic. They don’t yet know enough about the virus to stop the pandemic, so we have to work with what they do know. 

If we are to minimize any damage caused by the coronavirus, we simply have to play by the virus’ rules. We have to understand the virus as best we can and adjust our lifestyles accordingly. 

Even if we don’t believe in the virus, we should still be considerate of people who fear the virus. Whether or not we believe in the virus, it can still kill. 

Kheven LaGrone, investigative reporter, activist, writer, artist, curator and licensed civil engineer, can be reached at kheven@aol.com