Despite the risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of protestors across Massachusetts have gathered in the last few days for demonstrations against police bruality and the killing of George Floyd. WGBH's Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu spoke with Mark Shrime, director of the Center for Global Surgery Evaluation at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, about balancing the need to address structural racism with preventing the spread of the virus. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Joe Mathieu: To start with the real basics here, is it dangerous to be gathering in crowds like these at this time?

Mark Shrime: Yes, the basics are that it is. The coronavirus pandemic has not stopped — it hasn't gone away because these important protests are happening. It's still the backdrop.

Mathieu: We're still trying to figure out in a lot of ways how the virus is spread [and] what's effective in stopping it. Social distancing has apparently gone a long way to work as we come over the other side of the surge here in Massachusetts, as does wearing a mask. I look at these images, though, including the massive demonstration last night in Franklin Park, [and] a lot of people are wearing masks, but many are not. And people are awfully close.

Shrime: Yes, it is true. The things that you say are what have slowed the spread of this virus. Masking, public distancing [and] lockdowns have been effective at slowing the spread of this virus. But they are coming up against a second pandemic that we have been facing for centuries now of structural inequity and structural racism, and the response to that is the exact opposite.

Mathieu: Well, what do you think when you're looking at this happen at the same time? Are we weeks or months down the road going to look back on this as an exercise, maybe in social responsibility, certainly in delivering a passionate message that needs to be delivered but also could be creating a massive super spreader? Is that true?

Shrime: Well, so here's how I look at it as a public health person. We are facing two pandemics. We are facing two very important things that are happening that affect health. Structural racism affects health. African Americans are two and a half times more likely to be killed by police and also something like six times more likely to be the ones that die of COVID-19. And these two facts are related. So we have to face both, and we're facing both at the same time. So as a public health person, the response isn't we should ignore one to face the other — we should ignore structural racism to face COVID-19 or vice versa. I think that the correct response is, yes, we need to face both. How can we do it as safely as possible, and how can we minimize the harm and the risk as we do it?

Mathieu: The way that you just framed that, Mark, is important. You could argue, obviously as you just did, that one health problem is as bad as the other. So how do you balance them both then? If we're taking to the streets, how can we protect ourselves?

Shrime: I think some of the things that you already said at the top of the segment. We can protect ourselves as much as possible by distancing as much as possible. But the protests in Franklin Park, you can't really distance when you have that many people.

Mathieu: So it's imperative you wear a mask if you go into a protest. Is it as simple as that?

Shrime: Exactly. That was the next thing. It's imperative to bring a mask. And I think it's imperative also for police to realize that their policing tactics may be contributing to this.

Mathieu: Tell me more about that.

Shrime: So there's this tactic called kettling, which happened in New York City last night on the Manhattan Bridge, where for purposes of control, the police keep people close together. Well, that's not helping. Tear gas, which causes coughing and sputtering and also does increase the risk of respiratory infections after being tear gassed, that's not helping either. So these are already questionable tactics. But then in the face of a pandemic, they should really be re-evaluated.

Mathieu: That's a pretty interesting idea. So maybe instead of bringing tear gas, police should bring masks to these events?

Shrime: That would be great. We shouldn't just look at the protests themselves as a superspreader event because the protests don't exist in isolation. The protests exist against the backdrop of structural racism, but they also exist in the face of how the police are responding to it.

Mathieu: I don't mean to be flip about that, by the way. I know that police are also in danger and some have come under attack and are trying to prevent looting in some cases that has nothing to do with the protest. But if we're talking about actually doing what we can to make people safe — to keep people from being sick, if that's the only goal — distributing masks could potentially be more effective than any other police measure.

Shrime: Yes. And I was at a protest a couple of days ago where it wasn't the police, but it was the protesters who showed up with free masks [and] free hand sanitizer being conscious of the fact this is happening during a pandemic. I think this is the way to balance the risks of both.

Mathieu: With what's happened so far, in two weeks are you worried about what the numbers are going to show? What do you think will happen?

Shrime: Yeah, I don't know that anybody thinks that there aren't going to be increases in cases in a couple of weeks. I would say it's almost inevitable. Obviously, I would love to be wrong about that, but I would say it's almost inevitable. And again, this is where the public health person says there are measures that we can do to minimize the risk and minimize the harm. But at what point are we willing to accept extra risk to address the pandemic of structural racism at the same time?