In a Plague-Time, Redefining the “Essential” Worker

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Fourth in an ongoing series, “Notes from a Plague-Time”

The following comes from a “safe place” — a very safe place. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, my husband and I are “self-isolating,” “sheltering in place.” Moreover, we are sheltering in a gated community. The virus, of course, is not stopped by gates, but right now, we are untouched here. Like everyone else, we feel the dread, but from a safe place, comparatively.

On top of that — more cushioning: We both can “work from home,” another directive for survival. But working from home has been our mode for 20 years now — me, writing commentary, and Larry, Civic Man, in and out of the house for meetings on education, homelessness, Democratic politics. Now, sheltering in place, he conducts his civic life on-line and on-camera.

Operationally, then, our lifestyle remains unchanged, except: Our formerly quiet house is noisier, by a tad, with the voices of community engagement drifting up the stairs from Larry’s office, sometimes so animatedly that, not wanting to get out of my recliner where I am pinned down by my laptop, I will raise my voice to say: “Dear, keep it down, O.K.?” O.K.

Have I established, in this deadly pandemic, how safe, and pleasant, our safe place is?

About the gated-community thing, I can explain: The house was underpriced; we made an offer early, hoping to avoid a bidding war; the owner accepted our offer; and, boom — we were in a gated community, not by design but default. Financially, we are safe enough: We are not big consumers but demon savers, and Larry’s Navy retirement check is deposited in our bank, first of the month, like clockwork.

Have I established the guilt underlying our sense of safety?

Further about safety: There are other factors — we are both over 65 with underlying conditions (well-controlled but underlying) — that make us grateful for this safety. It is also these factors that make us dependent, not on the kindness of strangers (ala Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”), but for their delivery systems. (Suddenly, Literature seems a privileged thing.) Our furnace went out and our roof sprang a leak, but both were repaired by service people venturing out into Virus Land to help us.

The big need for which we are now completely dependent on others is, of course, food. Operationally, we-who-shelter have quickly come to depend on food-shopping and food-delivery services, many of them pop-up since the pandemic’s onset. (Larry stopped doing our weekly Costco run the first week of self-isolation.)

The disparity of our positions — safe vs. unsafe — came into focus for me several weeks ago, in an encounter that lingers in my mind. Usually it is Larry who takes receipt of deliveries coming to the house, since his office is on the first floor. Our emails to each other are signed LL (Lower Level) and UL (Upper Level). In this instance, Upper Level took her evening walk — and took receipt of a kind of revelation.

It was already quite dark, but I could make out a man coming toward me carrying a heavy load in plastic bags. Knowing we expected a grocery delivery, I asked him, “Are you looking for the Seaquist house?” He said yes, so I directed him (“On the left”) and went on with my walk. Then it hit me: He was walking because he could not work the gate-code, meaning he walked some distance to get to us.

Heading back toward the house — my circuit is just our cul-de-sac — I saw the man walking out. I asked if he met my husband, meaning: We give big tips — lavish tips — to delivery people these days and did he get his?

He said no, then noted: “It’s beautiful in here.” I noted the “in here.”

“Yes, it is,” I replied, then blurted out, “It’s our first house after years and years of apartments and we got it, our first house, in our fifties.” Guilt again.

Then I said: “Really, we want to give you a tip. Come back to the house with me. My husband must have been in the kitchen and didn’t hear the doorbell.”

But he said: “No, I’m fine.”

And, not monitoring myself, I said: “Are you? Fine, I mean?”

He said, “Yeah, I am,” and started moving again.

And as he moved off, I said: “Bless you, Sir.” I could barely get out the “Sir” for the tears.

All this transpired of course over the requisite six feet of “social distancing” — and the infinite chasm of social privilege. And in the near-dark: I could not make out his face at all, only his voice. So many metaphors, so many excuses for injustice.

I have gone on (and on) here about safety and privilege because: I really hope never to hear again about the “bad choices” the working class makes. This is the social-distancing mantra — it has worked terrifically — that we have heard for decades from the political right, but also from the posh precincts on the left. Maybe, pre-pandemic, bad choices were made by the working poor. But now, in this deadly plague, whose ways not even epidemiologists can predict, whose lethality is hammered home with every newscast — the working poor have no choice at all, none: Not for them the luxury of working from home, they must risk their very lives to deliver to people-risking-very-little their steaks, their ice cream, their eye drops.

And don’t forget, after Delivery Person leaves, to Windex and wipe down, while Delivery Person ventures, not out of choice (nice, that privilege!) but from iron necessity, back into Virus Land. By contrast, today I ventured out (for physical therapy for pre-pandemic hand surgery) for the first time since self-isolating four weeks ago. The injustice is yawning.

Lethality update: On yesterday’s PBS NewsHour, “new milestones” were noted — over two million infected worldwide with the coronavirus; over 125,000 dead worldwide; the number of dead in the U.S. is now over 26,000. (Update: As of April 16, the number of U.S. dead topped 28,000.)

I cannot imagine how, on hearing those kinds of numbers, the working poor manage their nerves, their fears, their souls.

Daily we hear, from our sheltered safety, more and more stories of the risks these workers take — and the deaths they are incurring in growing numbers. “I’m scared to go to work” states it for the millions working not only as delivery people in a broad array of services, but grocery clerks, warehouse stockers, postal workers, bus drivers, firefighters, etc. The New York Times Magazine devoted a long cover story to these risk-takers, titled “Exposed. Afraid. Determined.” Some of these risk-takers are now deemed emergency responders. And of course there are the heroic medical workers — doctors, nurses, technicians, EMTs — risking their lives for us.

And we read, from our sheltered safety, of the 17 million Americans losing their jobs in just the last three weeks — a U.S. record — meaning: These people will be joining the ranks of the above-mentioned risk-takers (if they were not there already). (Update: As of April 16, that number jumped to 22 million.)

All of which means: If our lives for the foreseeable future are to be lived in the Valley of the Shadow of the Coronavirus, that is to say Death, as epidemiologists warn, then these risk-taking workers will continue to take risks on behalf of all the rest of us, likewise for the foreseeable future. It behooves all of us who are sheltered and safe to remember this sacrifice.

And it behooves those who mewl about the difficulties of self-isolation to….rethink. Think on the person who risked his/her life to bring you your peach.

It also behooves a reconsideration of the question: Who is an “essential” worker? Is it the middle manager — or any worker working in the one sector of the economy (groceries) that has soared while all other sectors have tanked, but which sector now comes laden with viral danger? Is it the President of the United States of America, who cannot organize the federal response to the pandemic — or the delivery person bringing you your food, your meds? Of course, in the best of all possible worlds, all work would be deemed essential, but we do not live in that world.

As for ourselves, Larry will continue his work on-line in education, homelessness (stand by for an explosion in homelessness), Democratic politics; I will continue with what I consider my public service, commentary. We can only hope this work is essential. But, for sure, in the Age of Corona, the workers described above, working at low-low pay but high-high risk, are this era’s “essential” workers.

Will we remember this, post-pandemic — who is the “essential” worker? In a radically reordered post-pandemic world — both economy and society — will these risk-takers still “count”? Or will the essentially inessential, like the financial types who create instruments out of whole paper, or that inanity known as the “influencer,” take top priority once again?

In a way, we are fortunate in the timing of this pandemic. No, I wish to Heaven we were not going through this awfulness. But in this presidential election year, we can — if we handle it right — reposition America in a more humane direction. I am glad Joe Biden, the Democrats’ probable presidential nominee, a moderate, declares himself open to the points advocated by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the progressives who left the race — Warren’s call for “deep structural change,” Sanders’ call for a “political revolution.” Because: They have seen their points validated by this pandemic — the need for universal healthcare and the need for a more humane capitalism, one that honors the “essential” workers risking their lives for the safe and sheltered.

Out of the Dark Ages came the Renaissance. Out of this pandemic comes, perhaps….the essential?

For other posts in this series, see here, here, and here.

Image: Plague doctor, circa 1656, during bubonic plague, Rome.

Written by

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" Playwright. Contributor, HuffPost. www.carlaseaquist.com.

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