Moneytalks (1): Essential Workers, Inevitable Death

It’s reasonable to be skeptical of the idea that a single semester’s worth of students is representative of general trends in the larger population. But for whatever it’s worth, this New York Times article really rings true for me. Though focused on Latinos in California, the pattern it describes seems to apply to the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area as well. The headline reads: “Many Latinos Couldn’t Stay Home. Now Virus Cases are Soaring in their Communities.”

You should read the whole thing, but here are some relevant excerpts:

 It was a variation on what has become a grim demographic theme, and not just in California. Infections among Latinos have far outpaced the rest of the nation, a testament to the makeup of the nation’s essential work force as the American epidemic has surged yet again in the last couple of weeks.

Latinos in the United States are hardly a cultural monolith, and there is no evidence that any ethnic group is inherently more vulnerable to the virus than others are. But in thelast two weeks, counties across the country where at least a quarter of the population is Latino have recorded an increase of 32 percent in new cases, compared to a 15 percent increase for all other counties, a Times analysis shows. …

During the lockdown, millions of Latino workers kept a bare-bones economy running: at the cutting tables of food-processing plants, as farmhands, as hospital orderlies, food preparers, supermarket workers and in many other jobs deemed essential. And they brought the virus home to often cramped living quarters, compounding the spread.

This was totally a blind spot,” said Dr. Alicia Fernandez, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who specializes in Latino and immigrant health.  ‘Much much more needs to be done in workplace protection.

Felician University, where I used to teach, is a small liberal arts college in north Jersey (technically but not substantively a university) with a female-male ratio of roughly 7:3, and a Hispanic/Latino-identifying population of about 30%. It’s also, for whatever it’s worth, a federally-designated “Hispanic Serving Institution,” a fact endlessly trumpeted in its official PR statements.

Since I taught a relatively heavy load of compulsory general education classes (minimum 4:4, but up to 6:6), it’s safe to say that I got a fairly representative sample of the university’s population, if not the larger population beyond it. Roughly 19% of the population of New Jersey is Hispanic/Latino, so that in some (vague, inexact) sense, Latinos were “over-represented” at Felician. But since New Jersey is a demographically heterogeneous place, and Felician drew most of its students from the heavily Latino northeast quadrant of the state, my classes might well have mirrored broader demographic trends, at least in New Jersey’s northeastern counties (Bergen, Passaic, Essex, Hudson, and Union).

Toward the end of the spring 2020 semester, I gave my gen ed students,, roughly 90 in total, an assignment asking them to write narrative essays describing their experiences dealing with COVID-19. I’ve so far posted a very small handful of these on Policy of Truth, but still have a backlog of several dozen in my files, some of which I intend to edit and post in the near future.

One quasi-demographic or quasi-epidemiological pattern popped up with striking regularity: Young women from Spanish-speaking families, often from cities in Passaic and Hudson counties (e.g., Paterson, Jersey City, and environs) were both taking classes at Felician, and working essential jobs of some sort. They lived in relatively cramped quarters in population-dense neighborhoods with extended family who were also working essential jobs, often in parts of New York City at the epicenter of the pandemic, (e.g., Washington Heights, Brooklyn, the Bronx).

With striking regularity the following took place: Sometime in early March (or maybe earlier), before awareness of the coronavirus had become widespread, someone in the family would manage to bring the virus home, so that everyone or almost everyone in the household would get sick. The more vulnerable members of the family would end up hospitalized, some suffering quite serious morbidities; others died.

The families were then left to cope with their losses, turning inward to surviving family for support, and outward to God for solace. Beyond this rather closed circle, however, their sufferings went mostly unheard and unheralded. I’m guessing that in many cases, given the political environment, many preferred it that way. Given the federal government’s zeal to deport “illegal aliens,” many Latino families probably figured that any attention was unwanted attention, and chose to suffer in silence.

Now, I can be pretty judgmental about my students’ dissolute lifestyles and dismal study habits, but the experience of reading these essays gave me a rare glimpse into the lives of my students that moved me in ways that can only be compared to the time that I’ve spent with students in developing countries–Pakistan, Palestine, Nicaragua. With rare exceptions, I generally haven’t had occasion to think of American college students as having achieved literally heroic stature. But these students, mostly young women in their late teens or early twenties, had.

And like authentic heroes everywhere, they were naively unaware of what they’d accomplished. They’d been raised in that (to me) all-too-familiar developing-world ethic that demands modesty, reticence, and Stoicism from women while simultaneously expecting omni-competence and perpetual industry of them. It wouldn’t have occurred to them that what they’d done was much of a big deal. Apparently, it didn’t occur to many other people, either.

I was glad to have given them a modest means of expression through my class assignment, but disappointed (to put it mildly) at the obliviousness to their stories in the larger society. I don’t mean, of course, that I was unhappy at anyone’s failure to read my series, which is beside the point. Nor do I mean that absolutely no one recognized their plight; some did. What I mean is that there was little generalized appreciation of the larger implications of their narratives, and of narratives like theirs.

Throughout the spring of 2020, public discussion of COVID-19 revolved around two questions: (1) how do we flatten the curve? and (2) when do we finally “open up the economy”? Lost in the shuffle of these two questions was a third, of at least equal importance: what was to be done to protect essential workers?  Put differently, what were the needs of those who made the biggest contribution to “flattening the curve” by working when the economy was supposedly “closed”?

Whenever I heard people complaining about “the lockdown”–many of them upper-middle class suburbanites who seemed to be complaining for its own sake–I thought reflexively of the people who had never locked down, the people who were literally keeping the complainers alive by remaining open. I couldn’t help thinking of them because I was in the unique position of having them tell me what it was like to be them.

But for the most part, those who relied on essential workers for their very survival seemed fundamentally uninterested in the plight of these essential workers–uninterested in the demands placed on them, and uninterested in the risks they incurred by having to work. Such privileged complainers seemed more interested in their own unfettered access to frivolities, or in playing word games about the meaning of “essential” than they did about the fact that the people serving them hand and foot were putting their lives on the line to do it.

The very word “lockdown” reflects this distortion. Though used in lachrymose tones to give the sense that we were all under the equivalent of a military occupation, the casual use of this word glossed over the fact that in truth, we weren’t fully locked down. Anyone who’s been in a real lockdown, as I have, would have found the American version of a “lockdown” laughable by comparison. The word was also used in ways that conflated voluntary adherence to distancing guidelines, voluntary adherence to executive orders, and the active enforcement of those legal orders on the non-compliant by the police. Pull a bit at the thread that holds together almost any critique of “the lockdown,” and it begins to unravel amidst a series of equivocations and exaggerations.

Yes, the restrictions imposed hardship on many people, particularly those in small business. And yes, unemployment benefits were slow to get to some. But no, the lockdown wasn’t even close to complete. No one was literally locked in their homes. The completely abandoned, ghost-town-like streets one saw on TV or online were exceptions, not the rule. Plenty of people defied even the most sensible “lockdown” regulations with impunity, and did so in droves. Plenty of people also voluntarily adhered to guidelines that nominally took the form of orders. And every executive order announcing the lockdown came with a list of loopholes, exceptions, and mitigating cases far longer than the order itself.

But exaggeration and polemical grandstanding were the real order of the day. And in truth, the people who had the most to complain about, the people not locked down, were the ones who made the fewest complaints, and made them at the lowest decibel level. They were too busy working to join very loudly in the chorus of grievance.

In part 2 of this series, I want to explain the relevance of the preceding to the debate over college re-openings this fall, particularly in New Jersey, but elsewhere as well. Much of the debate proceeds from the unquestioned assumption that on-ground instruction must take place in the fall–an assumption made on faith not just by university administrators, but by the state’s Department of Higher Education, and even by the CDC.

As with all such axioms, the rationale for the assumption was never really up for debate. The only permissible topic was and is implementation–not whether to open up, but how. Those who disagreed have widely been regarded as anxious worry-warts, as not fully committed to the vocation of higher education, or as a bunch of idealistic dreamers out of touch with the hard realities of “survival” in the current economic situation. The underlying subtext is that they are in some sense cowards.

As I write, NPR reports that 121 students at the University of Washington have tested positive for COVID-19. This is at the height of summer, not during the semester, at an institution that had claimed to follow all relevant protocols for the few students on campus. And yet they managed, despite all that, to get an F in Coronavirus 101. It’s a question worth asking why repeating this particular class in the fall will yield a higher grade. And there are plenty of questions worth asking about the consequences of not getting a passing grade. To be continued.

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