Did the woman who sold me a package of face masks in a Manhattan pharmacy back in April save my life? Maybe. She certainly risked hers.
As this pandemic has raged, most of us have stayed home as we were instructed to do by our governors and mayors. We’ve worked from our beds, we’ve watched Netflix, we’ve baked sourdough boules. We did yoga classes on our phones. We rode bikes that went nowhere. Some of us learned to knit. We’ve ordered food. Some of us learned to cook. We were bored. We’ve missed our parents and sometimes grandparents but we were on the whole, safe.
Not so for a large chunk of the American population. “Essential workers” were lambs sent to slaughter by Donald Trump and his no-nothing Republicans. “Essential workers” are the people who bag your groceries, grill your hamburger, farm your strawberries, deliver your mail, fill your prescriptions and drive your bus. Without these people, there is no food order, no bread to bake, no coffee to drink.
These people weren’t able to Zoom into the office. We were able to stay home because of the tasks that these “essential workers” performed outside the safety of their living rooms. These people suddenly found themselves on the front lines of the pandemic. Unlike the equally essential and more widely acknowledged “frontline workers”—doctors, nurses, hospital staffers—they thought they were signing up for relatively safe and undramatic jobs only to end up risking their lives every time they left for work. The Trump administration didn’t order any federal mandates protecting these workers and so these “essential workers” went to work completely unprotected by their government. Thousands of essential workers have gotten sick; probably hundreds have died.
Trump ran on selfishness, on “America first” and building a wall on the Mexican border. The whole ethos of Trumpism is “screw everyone else.” And perhaps that’s why he’s done such a horrendous job with the pandemic—and now the vaccine rollout. Viruses are contagious; this particular virus transmits through tiny microscopic droplets in the air. We all breath the same air. There isn’t special air for people who don’t believe the virus exists. There is no “you” or “me” in a pandemic. If you want to stay safe from the pandemic, you have to keep the people around you safe, chiefly by wearing a mask. Trump’s refusal to acknowledge this, his ignorance and his selfishness, particularly in the waning weeks of the presidential election, when he blamed the coronavirus for his lagging poll numbers, has resulted in the deaths of approximately 350,000 Americans.
Essential workers often end up being the enforcers when it comes to masking. They find themselves in the impossible situation of needing to explain to stubbornly angry customers why they have to wear a mask. In a normal country with a functioning federal government, a president might explain to his supporters why they have to wear masks. But the Republican Party has been staunchly anti-mask. So the president’s supporters have gone to great lengths to make the refusal to strap on a mask a political statement. In California, a Target employee was assaulted by two men who refused to wear masks; they broke his arm. In Texas, a bus driver was shot by a man who was denied boarding because of his refusal to wear a mask. Just this past week, a crowd of mask-free protesters tried to storm their way into an upscale grocery store in Beverly Hills:
The refusal to wear a mask has become a way for people to show allegiance to Trumpism. But the victims of this “anti-masking” are often essential workers just trying to do their jobs. They are our heroes. And yet no crowds showed up outside a Gristedes or a Kroger’s at 7 p.m. every evening to clap as the grocery clerks ended their shifts.
The irony is that the term “essential” isn’t hyperbole. These workers are actually essential—but they aren’t compensated like they’re essential; they’re compensated like they’re disposable. As Vox noted, “Millions of essential jobs are low-paid ones, where paid leave isn’t an option, let alone the offer of employer-subsidized health insurance.” The New York Times pointed out that these jobs are disproportionately held by one segment of the population: “From the cashier to the emergency room nurse to the drugstore pharmacist to the home health aide taking the bus to check on her older client, the soldier on the front lines of the current national emergency is most likely a woman.” And The Appeal notes, “Grocery store workers, who make roughly half the average national income, are at risk of exposure as they continue to work to ensure shelves are restocked and communities fed. Yet many grocery retailers have done little to ensure the safety of their employees, and some are lining up new workers in anticipation of current staff members becoming too sick to work.”
We may never be able to teach Trump or his supporters to care about other people but we can start to right their many wrongs. These “essential workers” have literally given their lives so we can have our coffee, hamburgers, Clorox wipes. Trump and his supporters have made these people’s lives infinitely harder.
President-elect Joe Biden has a chance to start to right this wrong. The first thing he must do is raise minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour. Congress must legislate protections for part time and hourly workers. We must do better for these people. We owe them. The moral arch of the universe is long but it must bend towards justice and Joe Biden must bend it towards worker protection and compensation. These people risked their lives for us, we owe them.