Ricochet COVID Symposium: An ‘Essential’-Eyed View

 

Worker

“Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange.

I’m an hourly worker at a neighborhood pet supplies store. I never considered myself an “essential” worker. That was a term I used to refer to my paternal grandfather who, as a railroad engineer during World War II, was prohibited from joining the military. March 25 was the day Minnesota Governor Tim Walz announced a statewide “stay-at-home” order. It was the day I learned I was an “essential worker” in COVID America.

In the days after the initial lockdown order, the chaos was almost overwhelming. What the run on toilet paper was to the grocery stores, dog and cat food was to my store. People were panic buying cartloads of food. Bags were gone as fast as they were stocked. The initial emergency state proclamation was for two weeks. For the most part, people were understanding, but nervous. Two weeks was do-able. Inundated with news reports about the dire situation in New York City was enough to sacrifice daily routines and a paycheck or two to prevent a similar catastrophe here. But then…we weren’t another New York City. Minnesotans held their breath, pensively, for another two-week extension. Thankfully the projected 75,000 deaths never materialized. But still, the call for sacrifice rang loud and clear.

The daily infection and death count are continually reported with intense seriousness, but without context. 83.9 percent of COVID deaths in Minnesota occur in long-term care facilities or nursing homes, the highest in the country. The average age of a COVID death is 83. While I mourn the loss of those deaths as a personal tragedy for every family, I also see the unemployment crisis of working-age adults staring me in the eyes with silent hopelessness. Customers telling me of a lost a job is an almost daily occurrence. When once people bought pet food in anticipation of supply disruption, they now buy it because they don’t know when they’ll have the money to buy more. Instead of donations for local shelters, customers are coming in asking for expired food, opened or returned bags, and they rummage through that same donation bin for themselves. Witnessing the pain and embarrassment of declined check cards, I’ve paid for more than one bag of cat or dog food for a neighbor in need.

What I keep coming back to is that in times of hardship, the kind people have become kinder, but the mean-spirited people are more ignoble and nasty. They double-down on their attitude of superior virtue just by an outward expression of self-sacrifice without actually experiencing it.

I come home each day thankful for my job and angry at the choices people are now forced to make because they no longer have a job, a paycheck, or a voice. The consistent message from pundits, analysts, and policy experts is the “Grandma Killer” drumbeat. It’s followed by lamentations of unemployment numbers far exceeding any previous record, as if they don’t understand why forcing the economy to ground to a halt wouldn’t cause mass unemployment. They have no idea how working-class people live and work, or they just don’t care. “Essential” workers are useful as long as they deliver their groceries, their takeout, and their aromatherapy candles. Everyone else is invisible – and expendable. And in this COVID “war,” if you’re not with them, you’re worse than against them: you’re the outright enemy.

PSA commercials tell us “We’re in it together!” but this crisis has intensified the polarization. In a society where everything is assigned a moral-political value, we are forced to choose sides. And in this black-and-white moralization of an all-or-nothing pandemic, those, like me, who are concerned about economic devastation are branded by those favoring indefinite lockdown as morally reprehensible. It is an extension of the forgotten class with which I interact every day. How can I look at them and say I was picked by the elected (and unelected) bureaucracy as being essential, and the hairdresser is not? Why do I have the good fortune of earning a paycheck and having the dignity of work while my neighbor is at the mercy of a government handout – or even nothing at all? It’s not about country club members who benefit from golf courses opening – it’s the groundskeepers, the caddies, the maintenance crews who have families to feed. Bars and restaurants aren’t just owners and operators – they’re servers, bussers, food suppliers, truckers, and repairmen. A paycheck is just as essential to their lives as anyone else.

As an essential worker, I have a front-row seat to the growing divide that started before the 2016 election and now reaching a near-insurmountable chasm. When the political and social elite started assigning value to classes of Americans, those at the bottom are not only forgotten, they are silenced. A government shutdown, paired with picking who would be allowed to work took away the freedom of people to make the decisions that best fit their situation, and the grandma-killer scolds are the enforcers. Taking away one’s livelihood takes away the power over one’s life. That is what I see where the pandemic intersects with politics. Between those who have a voice and those who are silenced – or worse – made to feel shame for wanting to have control over their lives.

When people talk of shared sacrifice, it’s spoken as if it’s an equally shared burden. In reality, the brunt of the sacrifice falls where it almost always falls: on those already marginalized and on the precipice of financial comfort and ruin. Those who speak up for their dignity and livelihoods are unfairly silenced by those who confuse their financial security for moral superiority. But unlike the end of WWII, when the dust settles on this “war,” there won’t be a ticker-tape parade for those who bear the cost of sacrifice. It will be an unbridgeable gulf between my friends and neighbors who were deemed expendable and nonessential, and those who doomed them to that fate.

Americans have held their breath long enough to flatten the curve, but it’s gone far enough, and now we’re dying of asphyxiation.

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There are 18 comments.

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  1. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    The medical profession is hurting too. The change has to come from them, and I believe it will do so soon. The public simply does not have any way to process the news.  

    • #1
  2. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    MarciN (View Comment):

    The medical profession is hurting too. The change has to come from them, and I believe it will do so soon. The public simply does not have any way to process the news.

    This is going to reverberate throughout the entire country. It’s interesting, one day I had a nurse come in and she was absolutely hysterical about the certain crisis about to wipe out MN. She actually yelled at me for not wearing a mask (my employer doesn’t require one). The next day another nurse I’m friendly with came in and I asked her if she was afraid of her hospital being overwhelmed. She actually chuckled and said no, in fact she was taking vacation days because of the lack of need.

    • #2
  3. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    JennaStocker: When people talk of shared sacrifice, it’s spoken as if it’s an equally shared burden. In reality, the brunt of the sacrifice falls where it almost always falls: on those already marginalized and on the precipice of financial comfort and ruin. Those who speak up for their dignity and livelihoods are unfairly silenced by those who confuse their financial security for moral superiority. But unlike the end of WWII, when the dust settles on this ‘war’, there won’t be a ticker-tape parade for those who bear the cost of sacrifice. It will be an unbridgeable gulf between my friends and neighbors who were deemed expendable and nonessential, and those who doomed them to that fate.

    You express the issue beautifully here, Jenna. There are the people who can “afford” to let others suffer, and those who must endure the suffering. Truth be told, this virus will be with us for a while. Meanwhile, we need to get on with our lives and do what we can to make our workers safe and to protect the most vulnerable. Great post!

    • #3
  4. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member
    9thDistrictNeighbor
    @9thDistrictNeighbor

    MarciN (View Comment):
    MarciN

    The medical profession is hurting too.

    Private practice has been hurt tremendously.  Telemedicine does not make up for the loss.

    I had an unfortunate thought reading this post.  I can envision a time in the future where Planned Parenthood is busy because people “just can’t  afford to have a baby.”  Or so they will be told.  PP just opened up a new abortion mill close to the Illinois-Wisconsin border.  Because health care.

    • #4
  5. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    9thDistrictNeighbor (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):
    MarciN

    The medical profession is hurting too.

    Private practice has been hurt tremendously. Telemedicine does not make up for the loss.

    I had to go to a private clinic for an elective medical treatment. MN Governor allowed elective procedures just last week. The nurses I talked with just got back to work after over a month.  They’re starting telemedicine as well and seem skeptical of its effectiveness. I think it may turn “bedside manner” into an archaic phrase!

    • #5
  6. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    JennaStocker: When people talk of shared sacrifice, it’s spoken as if it’s an equally shared burden. In reality, the brunt of the sacrifice falls where it almost always falls: on those already marginalized and on the precipice of financial comfort and ruin. Those who speak up for their dignity and livelihoods are unfairly silenced by those who confuse their financial security for moral superiority. But unlike the end of WWII, when the dust settles on this ‘war’, there won’t be a ticker-tape parade for those who bear the cost of sacrifice. It will be an unbridgeable gulf between my friends and neighbors who were deemed expendable and nonessential, and those who doomed them to that fate.

    You express the issue beautifully here, Jenna. There are the people who can “afford” to let others suffer, and those who must endure the suffering. Truth be told, this virus will be with us for a while. Meanwhile, we need to get on with our lives and do what we can to make our workers safe and to protect the most vulnerable. Great post!

    Thank you @susanquinn I think we need to be cognizant of the connectivity between people in our communities- no man is an island and the destruction of a whole class of people, not to say the disparagement of them, will eventually touch everyone.

    • #6
  7. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Customers telling me of a lost a job is an almost daily occurrence. When once people bought pet food in anticipation of supply disruption, they now buy it because they don’t know when they’ll have the money to buy more.

    That’s heartbreaking. Where are you in MN? Your story made me look up local free pet-food operations, and I think I’m going to do a story on it. (For the newspaper, not here.)

    • #7
  8. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Customers telling me of a lost a job is an almost daily occurrence. When once people bought pet food in anticipation of supply disruption, they now buy it because they don’t know when they’ll have the money to buy more.

    That’s heartbreaking. Where are you in MN? Your story made me look up local free pet-food operations, and I think I’m going to do a story on it. (For the newspaper, not here.)

    Bloomington. My husband and are going to talk to the management of the store about this. There are 3 stores in the TC area and hopefully we can try to run a food drive. 

    • #8
  9. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    JennaStocker (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):

    The medical profession is hurting too. The change has to come from them, and I believe it will do so soon. The public simply does not have any way to process the news.

    This is going to reverberate throughout the entire country. It’s interesting, one day I had a nurse come in and she was absolutely hysterical about the certain crisis about to wipe out MN. She actually yelled at me for not wearing a mask (my employer doesn’t require one). The next day another nurse I’m friendly with came in and I asked her if she was afraid of her hospital being overwhelmed. She actually chuckled and said no, in fact she was taking vacation days because of the lack of need.

    The financial burden on the healthcare system has been truly terrible. To me, that is an indicator of the seriousness with which doctors have viewed this virus. Our local hospital just laid off 600 employees indefinitely. If hospitals had seen a way to pursue business as usual, they would have taken it. This could have been much worse. 

    And they have done a great job in treating young patients with it and restoring them to health. That part of the story needs to be told–the lives they have saved. Yes, it’s true that the people who have died have been mostly very senior citizens. But the people who have survived did so because of the treatment they received in our nation’s hospitals. That is a statistic that needs to be front and center now. 

    Now we have pick up the pieces from the tornado that just blew through the country. We have to turn our attention to people who have been harmed by shutting down the economy. That number is huge. About 27 million people in this country do not have health insurance. That’s an economic indicator of the number of people who do not have secure employment. That’s the number of people who are vulnerable to the side effects of the treatment for this virus–that is, the shutdown of the economy. 

    • #9
  10. Buckpasser Member
    Buckpasser
    @Buckpasser

    JennaStocker: Customers telling me of a lost a job is an almost daily occurrence.

    At first it was the “essential” workers telling the “non-essential ” workers that they should just stay under lock down for the sake of grandma.  Now that we are in month 3 of house arrest some of the “essential” workers are being hit with collateral damage.  This may be what moves the needle to open up.

    • #10
  11. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    Wonderful and heartbreaking  post.  The biggest shock to me is that one’s response to the  corona virus breaks along ideological lines so cleanly.  All my academic and progressive friends want imposed restrictions, all my conservative friends want to get back to work.  To a tee.  But I should not have been shocked-we have very different world views  and it makes sense they would be even more magnified.  We have different fundamentally different  views on work, human dignity, personal freedom and responsibility, family, community, authority, government.  It doesn’t help that some of the canards of both sides have been discarded-conservatives didn’t object much to massive government stimulus packages, causing the left to say “See we were right about the social safety net and guaranteed universal income.”  The left seems to be oblivious to the irony that all their sacred cows from the last years:  Get rid of plastic bags, get rid of private cars, open up the borders-were the first to go and they happily went  along.  

    I believe firmly that the “Get back to work and get back out there” movement will win.  And we scofflaws who are already going out will  show that Armageddon is not forthcoming-it hasn’t even thought we’ve been moving around much more.  It won’t convince the other side. They will go out shopping and to get their haircut anyway smug in their conviction that they saved the world.  But we will know better, as we always do.   

    • #11
  12. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    Gossamer Cat (View Comment):

    Wonderful and heartbreaking post. The biggest shock to me is that one’s response to the corona virus breaks along ideological lines so cleanly. All my academic and progressive friends want imposed restrictions, all my conservative friends want to get back to work. To a tee. But I should not have been shocked-we have very different world views and it makes sense they would be even more magnified. We have different fundamentally different views on work, human dignity, personal freedom and responsibility, family, community, authority, government. It doesn’t help that some of the canards of both sides have been discarded-conservatives didn’t object much to massive government stimulus packages, causing the left to say “See we were right about the social safety net and guaranteed universal income.” The left seems to be oblivious to the irony that all their sacred cows from the last years: Get rid of plastic bags, get rid of private cars, open up the borders-were the first to go and they happily went along.

    I believe firmly that the “Get back to work and get back out there” movement will win. And we scofflaws who are already going out will show that Armageddon is not forthcoming-it hasn’t even thought we’ve been moving around much more. It won’t convince the other side. They will go out shopping and to get their haircut anyway smug in their conviction that they saved the world. But we will know better, as we always do.

    @gossamercat Well said. I see a similarity in talking about the lockdown & conservatives talking about politics: we often whisper to each other in corners. Those on the left are usually very outgoing in making their thoughts known. 
    And as far as going back to work, this article in our local news shows illustrated the desperation, and willingness to roll the dice: https://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2020/05/05/coronavirus-in-minnesota-st-paul-barbershop-reopens-defying-stay-at-home-order/amp/?__twitter_impression=true

    • #12
  13. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    JennaStocker (View Comment):
    And as far as going back to work, this article in our local news shows illustrated the desperation, and willingness to roll the dice: https://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2020/05/05/coronavirus-in-minnesota-st-paul-barbershop-reopens-defying-stay-at-home-order/amp/?__twitter_impression=true

    I love the line in there “Walz says he understands the frustration.”  Actually he doesn’t.  Here’s what needs to be said to him:

    “No governor, you don’t but perhaps you can.  Here’s what I want you to do.  On a day of my choosing and without warning, I want you to stop receiving your paycheck.  No more salary.  And I want you to set up a bank account with $15,000 in it-I don’t care how much you have  in the bank, that’s all you are allowed.  Then I want you to go to the various government websites and spend days filling out paperwork.  In 3 weeks you might get a check for $1200 and if you do, the money is yours.  Then I want you to file for unemployment benefits.  There,  that is the money you get to live on.  For how long?  I’m not going to tell you so you really can’t plan.  Don’t worry, it’s for the good of your fellow citizens. But when I tell you it’s OK to go back to work, you can’t go back to being governor, because we’re going to pretend that your job isn’t there anymore.  So now I want you to figure out how you are going to support your family.  Write an essay on it and get back to me ”

    After you do all that, you can tell me you feel our frustration.

    • #13
  14. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    Gossamer Cat (View Comment):

    JennaStocker (View Comment):
    And as far as going back to work, this article in our local news shows illustrated the desperation, and willingness to roll the dice: https://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2020/05/05/coronavirus-in-minnesota-st-paul-barbershop-reopens-defying-stay-at-home-order/amp/?__twitter_impression=true

    I love the line in there “Walz says he understands the frustration.” Actually he doesn’t. Here’s what needs to be said to him:

    “No governor, you don’t but perhaps you can. Here’s what I want you to do. On a day of my choosing and without warning, I want you to stop receiving your paycheck. No more salary. And I want you to set up a bank account with $15,000 in it-I don’t care how much you have in the bank, that’s all you are allowed. Then I want you to go to the various government websites and spend days filling out paperwork. In 3 weeks you might get a check for $1200 and if you do, the money is yours. Then I want you to file for unemployment benefits. There, that is the money you get to live on. For how long? I’m not going to tell you so you really can’t plan. Don’t worry, it’s for the good of your fellow citizens. But when I tell you it’s OK to go back to work, you can’t go back to being governor, because we’re going to pretend that your job isn’t there anymore. So now I want you to figure out how you are going to support your family. Write an essay on it and get back to me ”

    After you do all that, you can tell me you feel our frustration.

    Can you do us all a favor and cc Governor Walz on this one? ;-)

    • #14
  15. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    JennaStocker: Two weeks was do-able.

    Two weeks, yes.  But two months?

    Totally unncessary for most of the country, maybe even for the hardest hit areas.  Once “flatten the curve” became “save all lives” and “wait for a vaccine”, it was anything goes for certain governors and mayors . . .

    • #15
  16. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    Stad (View Comment):

    JennaStocker: Two weeks was do-able.

    Two weeks, yes. But two months?

    Totally unncessary for most of the country, maybe even for the hardest hit areas. Once “flatten the curve” became “save all lives” and “wait for a vaccine”, it was anything goes for certain governors and mayors . . .

    Anything goes is right on target. The MN governor refuses to relinquish his emergency powers, and his word salad press conferences announce his “changes” but don’t actually do anything. He changes the words but no action to reopen. And he has zero questioning from the local press.

    • #16
  17. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    Anyone who tries to differentiate between “essential” and “non-essential” is that no one person or relatively small group of people to understand all the complex interactions of the supply chain. One of the early challenges to getting meat to supermarkets was the difficulty that meat packers who were used to packaging meat for restaurants had in getting the correct sized styrofoam trays for packaging meat for supermarkets. How many of these bureaucrats who ruled “food distribution” as essential would have immediately and fully understood that production of styrofoam was a key part of “food distribution”?

    • #17
  18. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    JennaStocker (View Comment):
    zero questioning from the local press.

    This is a travesty on par with the governor’s actions (or lack thereof) . . .

    • #18