During a Pandemic, There Is No Such Thing as ‘Us’ vs ‘Them’

In order to be safe, we have to improve conditions for the most marginalized people in our communities.

With the first outbreaks in Seattle and New York City, the initial story about coronavirus was that it was a pandemic that threatened highly populated urban areas. As I noted almost a month ago, however, hotspots started developing in rural parts of the country as well. Now, as Professor Gina Neff points out, there is a new story emerging.

The 10 biggest clusters of infection in the US are not high-flying international gatherings. The 10 biggest clusters are not rich people going to Europe. The 10 biggest clusters are not from airplanes or conferences or fancy birthday parties. They are NOT from outsiders.

Top 10 Coronavirus clusters in the US? Prisons, meat packing plants, a Navy battleship. Next 10? Prisons, meat packing plants, nursing homes. Next 10? And the 10 after that? Prisons, meat packing plants and nursing homes.

Here is the initial top ten that Neff is referring to:

Number three on that list, the Smithfield meatpacking plant, apparently offered a $500 “responsibility bonus” to workers who didn’t miss a shift in the month of April. In other words, they were willing to pay a bonus to workers who came in sick. That is the exact opposite of what public health professionals recommend during a pandemic. These are the plants Trump has ordered to stay open, promising immunity to the owners in the process.

The Democratic presidential nominee has a different idea about what needs to happen in these plants: extra premium pay for workers, rapid testing, and enforcement of worker protections.

Workers in those plants don’t simply spread the virus to their co-workers, but put everyone in their communities at risk. The same thing happens in the areas surrounding nursing homes and prisons. The coronavirus can’t be kept locked up behind the walls of prisons any more than it can be kept within geographic borders.

What this all comes down to is that nursing homes, prisons, and meat packing plants all have one thing in common: they house and/or employ some of the most marginalized people in this country. So Neff provides this warning.

For everyone to be safe, we must protect everyone. That’s the story to fight this virus. You might not like it.

For everyone to be safe, we must protect everyone. Not just rich. Or citizens. Or white people. Or voters. Or the able bodied. Or the young. Or people who can [work from home]…

We absolutely have to improve conditions in prisons, nursing homes and meat packing plants before we can return to “normal.” Otherwise, we are going to have tragic recurrences of clusters of coronavirus cases…

You can’t beat this virus without taking care of the most vulnerable PEOPLE in society…Public health has always known the truth. The care of the most margnialized members of society is important for fighting infectious diseases.

I don’t hold out much hope that Neff’s advice will be heeded, which means that communities around nursing homes, meat packing plants, and prisons will continue to be hotspots. That will put us all at risk unless and until we figure out that, “for everyone to be safe, we must protect everyone.” When it comes to pandemics, there’s no such thing as “us” vs “them.”

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.