As the coronavirus pandemic ravages the United States and the world, our society’s problems have become all the more clear: a for-profit health care and housing system, low wages and lack of unions, and a decrepit welfare state that fails to catch people even when they fall. But another thing has become apparent as well: people’s immense capacity for generosity and compassion. Neighbors are putting rainbows on their windows to send messages of hope, supporters are buying meals for health care workers, and scores of people are volunteering at food banks to help fill the gaps for the millions who have been laid off. And essential workers are continuing to work — often going above and beyond what’s expected of them — at their own personal risk.
Yesterday, we learned of the death of another essential worker, Paul Cary, a paramedic from Colorado Springs, Colorado. Cary volunteered to travel to New York at the end of March to help relieve the city’s overwhelmed EMS services. He eventually contracted COVID-19 and, on April 30, succumbed to the virus. “On Sunday,” the Washington Post reports, “a procession of ambulances and firetrucks carried him home to his family in Colorado.”
Leilani Jordan, a twenty-seven-year-old grocery store worker in Maryland, was another worker who put her life on the line. Jordan suffered from cerebral palsy, making her more vulnerable to the virus’s deadly effects. But she told her mom in March: “I’m going to still go to work. I want to help.” By the end of the month, she was on a ventilator, battling for her life. She didn’t make it.
While everyone works because they need to pay their bills and provide for their families, many also find a sense of purpose in what they do. Paramedics and grocery store workers are certainly not the highest-paid workers in this country, and yet Cary and Jordan took on significant risk because they felt called to help others. Countless other workers feel the same way, rushing to the frontlines of the pandemic day after day.
No matter what precautions are taken, there will be deaths during any pandemic, and those people should be honored and remembered. But the sheer number of COVID-19 casualties in the United States shows that many were preventable. Of the 1.2 million stricken with the virus so far, well over 70,000 have perished — far and away the most in the world.
Those deaths are mapping onto long-festering inequalities. Working-class neighborhoods are getting hammered. Black workers are dying at 2.7 times the rate of white workers, and Latino and Native Americans workers are dying at higher levels, too. Prisons are experiencing an infection rate 2.5 times greater than the general population. Meatpacking workers and bus drivers and Amazon workers are potentially exposing themselves to the virus every day, often without basic protections. We see America’s class society exposed — who’s getting sick and dying, who’s doing the essential work that keeps our society moving.
President Trump’s callous incompetence is certainly in part to blame for this cataclysm. But it’s unclear if a President Biden, say, would have shut down the economy early enough to prepare for the coming pandemic or have insisted that no one be allowed to fall through the cracks. Whether Republican or Democrat, the American ruling class prioritizes the stock market and corporate profits over human safety and dignity. Businesses’ right to make money has always superseded our right to live.
Even in “normal” circumstances, workers are used and abused. Millions of us have to work until we die, with no pension or retirement. Nearly 75 percent of us will die in debt. And in the pandemic, things are even more dire: showing up to your low-wage job can get you killed. Leilani Jordan’s mother said her daughter’s employer, Giant, declined to supply its employees gloves, and forced them to bring their own hand sanitizer.
“I got this paycheck yesterday for twenty dollars,” she told CBS News, after picking up her daughter’s final check. “Twenty dollars and sixty-four cents. My baby’s gone because of $20.64. You know what using the proper PPE [personal protective equipment] could’ve done for my baby?”
The immense courage and generosity shown by workers across the country has been remarkable. But in our profit-driven society, their toil is taken for granted — at times applauded but never afforded the pay or dignity it deserves.
In a moral system, being an essential worker would not be a death sentence. The well-being of workers would take precedence, health care and testing would be free for all, food and wages would be provided for those who couldn’t work, and housing would be a right, not a privilege. People would be able to work — to care for their families and do something productive and useful for society — without potentially sacrificing their own lives. Instead, in the capitalist United States, biomedical companies are getting rich selling tiny amounts of blood from COVID-19 patients (to the tune of $40,000) while workers risk their lives to help others.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can build a society that harnesses the goodness in people — without the poverty and exploitation.