The world has seen protests against epidemic lockdowns before. These are different

By Matt Field, April 20, 2020

Protests rally against Ohio's anti-coronavirus measures. A statehouse protest in Ohio last week, one of several in which demonstrators rallied against the stay-at-home orders that state governments have implemented to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Credit: M. CC BY-SA 4.0.

In Lansing, Michigan last week, drivers blocked off streets by the state Capitol, the sounds of blaring horns filling the air. Nearby, a ragtag posse of rifle-toting men posed on the steps of the 141-year-old building. The various stay-at-home orders and social-distancing policies that governors across the country have put in place to starve the novel coronavirus of more victims had to end, protesters said, doctors’ orders be damned.

The crowds of demonstrators—some carrying Trump-Pence campaign banners, others with yellow Tea Party flags, and many wearing red MAGA hats—showed up at the statehouses ready to take on the supposed overreach of their governors. On March 27, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper implemented a stay-at-home order with exceptions for outdoor exercise, grocery runs, and more. “We need our medical system to be able to care for the friends and family we know will become seriously ill from the virus,” he said then.

Just three weeks later, a protestor in North Carolina told ABC News, “If you’re scared stay home. But I’m not scared, and I don’t want to stay home.”

Protests against quarantines and other governmental response to infectious disease are not new. In some notable past instances, though, the heavy-handed government in question seemed, well, more heavy-handed than today’s. Take the former Milwaukee health commissioner, Walter Kempster, who okayed wrenching immigrants from their crowded homes during an 1894 smallpox outbreak and taking them to a city isolation hospital. Anger among immigrant communities on the south side of the city boiled over. Police and health workers were attacked. Riots broke out. To Kempster, however, the dissent could all be accounted for by “politics and bad beer,” medical historian Judith Leavitt said.

“In Milwaukee the policies were definitely discriminatory in the poorer, immigrant sections of the city. They literally took children from their mothers’ arms forcibly and put them in an isolation hospital,” she said. Native born, middle-class residents in the city, meanwhile, were allowed to care for the sick at home.

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“The injustice of it was immediately perceived and understood,” Leavitt, a retired University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, said.

The SARS outbreak in China in 2002 also led to protests against government efforts to stamp out the disease. The earliest cases of that earlier coronavirus-caused disease cropped up in Guangdong province in mid-November 2002. Health personnel in China were monitoring the “strange  disease” as early as that December, and experts were investigating the viral origins of the illness by early January, according to Yanzhong Huang, who wrote about the SARS saga in an article for the Harvard Asia Quarterly in 2003, a version of which was also published by the US National Academy of Sciences.

Despite the official investigations of the new illness, state secrets law provided that until China’s Ministry of Health publicized information about an infectious disease, doctors or journalists who reported on it risked prosecution. “A virtual news blackout about SARS thus continued well into February,” Huang wrote.

According to Huang, lack of trust in the government’s response fueled rumors about the disease. Protests against the government’s epidemic efforts broke out. In one case, the Los Angeles Times reported, 100 people from two villages in Zhejiang province ransacked a dormitory that was being set up as a medical observation facility for six travelers from Beijing. “It wasn’t a quarantine ward, but the villagers didn’t understand,” an official reportedly said. “They thought, ‘What if one of the travelers really became infected?'”

The Times reported that a local newspaper also included a more colorful take on what happened: “’At the instigation of a few drunks,’ the report said, several dozen villagers ‘who did not know the true situation’ charged into the building, smashing three offices and beating and injuring three officials who tried to stop them.”

Now protestors are gathering in the United States, targeting stay-at-home orders that have been imposed in 42 states. The number of new COVID-19 cases are reportedly climbing more slowly in some areas of the country than they had been, which is to say that social distancing seems to be working.

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Still, a vaccine to prevent COVID-19, the name of the disease caused by the new coronavirus, could be a year-and-a-half away. While experts and the White House have unveiled plans to gradually roll back restrictions on economic life before then, the prospect exists that for many life will remain more circumscribed than before the virus struck for several months.

While the Lansing demonstration reportedly attracted thousands, support for the protesters’ cause may not be deep. A recent Politico/Morning Consult poll showed that about 80 percent of voters support the social distancing measures put in place, even if they further damage the economy. Only 10 percent said that they support stimulating the economy at the expense of allowing the outbreak to continue.

The backlash playing out in state capitals is different from some earlier such protests because it has a particularly powerful proponent: the president of the United States. Less than three weeks ago Trump addressed the country in a “somber and sedate tone” on the coronavirus threat, urging citizens to “make sacrifices” amid “a great national trial.”  Now the president has a different message. “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” he tweeted Friday.

Within the span of a week, Trump has shifted from arguing that he had total presidential authority to force states to loosen their restrictive policies to joining, via tweet, with aggrieved people in Michigan and elsewhere, figuratively standing with them as they marched on the statehouses, shoulder to shoulder and less than six feet apart.

Before Trump posted his liberation-themed tweets, the White House issued guidelines for state and local officials to consider as they reopen their economies while “continuing to protect American lives.” It’s a stepwise approach, one that lacks the all-caps urgency conveyed in the president’s tweets. Trump’s health advisors continue to strongly support social-distancing restrictions.

Protests against government epidemic policies aren’t entirely rare; a president joining with protestors in his own country, rallying against his own policies, is.

As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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