Sunday, April 26, 2020
Reimagine Our Priorities
written 19 April 2020
published 26 April 2020
Times of crisis stress a culture, and produce shifts in the balance of power within a society. As the Black Plague burned through Europe in the 1300's, killing many peasants, it created a labor shortage that forcing society to shift from a feudal economy to one based on wages.
When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, it adversely affecting the countries they subsidized. A 2006 documentary, "The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil", describes how Cuba dealt with the loss of most of their fossil fuels and agricultural chemicals, such as fertilizers and pesticides. In addition to transforming their transportation system, the whole country mobilized to shift to 100% organic agriculture, which was accomplished within 6 months.
Despite being a socialist country, there were distinct class differences within the society, and peasant farmers had been at the low end of the scale. But during the transformation, called "The Special Period", these farmers skills were recognized as essential to the entire society, and they become national heroes.
As COVID-19 burns through our society, we are beginning to recognize the value of previously marginalized sectors of our own work force. Certainly, the doctors and nurses on the front lines in the hospitals are being celebrated, but doctors have always been in the upper tier of the workforce. However, nurses are as essential to actual health care, and haven't always been as honored or rewarded. In addition, the rest of the hospital staff, aides, housekeeping, janitors, and food service, are critical as well. These people are risking their lives every day, to help keep Americans healthy, yet are rarely rewarded appropriately.
All the employees of the various Emergency Medical Services are putting their lives at risk, and some don't even have health insurance as part of their employment, even though they are essential, skilled workers.
Another critical sector in this fight is the staff at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, both private and public. These establishments house, in close proximity, citizens most at risk to the worst effects of the virus. The staff is generally low wage, low status, maybe minimally trained, and may not have health insurance, yet they are essential to the health of their residents.
In the larger economy, we see that grocery store workers are essential to our survival, yet are another group fairly low in the economy, measured by wages and benefits. Further down the food chain are the factory workers who process the food, and the field workers who grow and harvest food. Many in this workforce are immigrants, perhaps undocumented and disparaged by "patriots", working for low wages and few benefits. New clusters of infected people have appeared at meat processing plants in mid-western red states with no shelter in place orders, working in conditions which force very close contact. Plants are having to close, reducing meat availability. As the virus spreads into these groups of workers, we are beginning to appreciate that they are also providing essential services.
The virus has squeezed our economy, highlighting what is really essential and what is not. People who provide health care and food are essential. Everyone else is down the list, which is generally the opposite of how our "normal" economic system values work. If nothing else comes out of this pandemic, I hope that we restructure our economy to reward people who are actually important to survival. At the very least, we see the advantage of everyone having living wages and access to competent health care, not insurance, but the actual care.
In the last four weeks, more than 22 million people have filed for unemployment, while the DOW average has grown 30%. This mismatch between what is considered important in our economy, and the reality of how people live, demonstrates a profound distortion. For example, we have a national leader who lacks compassion or empathy, focused entirely on reelection and enhancing his brand value, to the point of holding up relief checks to add his name. Contrast that to an overwhelmed nurse, perhaps wearing home-made protective gear because the richest country in the world still can't get that together, holding the hand of a stranger while they die. America can do better. Regime change is a moral imperative.