If the COVID-19 pandemic has made anything begin to be obvious in the social economic structure of the United States, it is the indispensable character of the work of those who truly guarantee the survival of humanity.
In reality, it has been the farm workers and health workers, together with those responsible for cleaning, and employees of supermarkets and pharmacies of every community, who have kept this nation of more than 300 million people safe during these interminable weeks.
And among this sea of people who come and go, leaning in to help ensure this system doesn’t succumb, are also, of course, the immigrants who, with or without documents, have been thrust like no one else to the frontlines of the battle against the deadly virus, while the rest of the population, including the anti-immigrant people and the most recalcitrant xenophobes, look in the rear-view mirror in order to, among other things, see which way the wind is blowing.
This new x-ray of the system in which we live has brought to light its very contradictions. But above all, it has exposed the hypocrisy of those who, from a position of power, have dusted off the catalog of insults and scorn against the “other,” the undocumented, the migrant, the foreigner of color, with the goal of winning votes from those who refuse to accept the new demographic reality that is and will be irreversible in the long-run of the United States, for the rest of its history.
For example, reluctant to accept that he continues to employ undocumented people, the president has decreed, paradoxically, that he will reopen meat-processing plants in order to continue providing a product to consumers that, for many, continues to be a primary need.
However it’s these businesses in which a high number of people have tested positive for COVID-19, the reason why they had to close. In Tyson Foods, for example, they have cataloged 900 infected workers, according to reports from local media in Indiana.
But it doesn’t stop there: a large majority of the workers in these meatpacking plants are not those who lash out once and for all, in marches and from their cyber holes, against the undocumented, but they are precisely the ones who have kept the meat industry alive, facing frightful working conditions; dealing with freezing temperatures every day; earning salaries of no more than $15; working lengthy days to complete their production quotas; and, above all, with the latent threat that one day immigration agents might come to detain and then deport them.
Those who have labored at Tyson Foods or in one of the other food processing plants in Tennessee, Iowa, Indiana, or Mississippi, where there have been massive ICE raids in recent years will recognize perfectly this terrifying job portrait, which none of those who vocalized against him would dare to suffer, preferring instead the comfort of being an arm-chair critic and the anonymity that social networks offer, along with their privileged nativism and poorly understood and worse exercised “patriotism.”
And that is where the serpent of capitalism bites its own tail: without labor, the system doesn’t function. And in this case it’s not a strike that has the businesses paralyzed, but a diminutive and invisible entity that is all around us and has brought what is considered to be the most powerful economy on the planet to its knees, where more than 60,000 people have already been killed and more than a million infected.
What’s more, in an extreme scenario, it could even happen that the obligation to work in these plants or in any other industry or business in the country could even be decreed, in order to reactive the economy at any cost, almost to the point of mouth to mouth resuscitation; but the threat of contracting the virus and eventually dying doesn’t only make the system more inhumane, but actually obsolete, more than irrelevant for the new populations that demand a new “social contract” in this new century, or outright a substantial change in the functioning of the system.
This is precisely one of the biggest teachings of this social isolation forced on us by the propagation of a virus that came to change everything, at least in this country: it has made visible the eternally ignored; identified those who shape their way of life around racism; catapulted the contradictions of an economic system based in decadence; reordered both personal and family priorities, especially in consumption habits; temporarily modified the system of teaching-learning; but above all, it has permitted us to see that that the law of maximum profit must no longer be the best formula to sustain a society that poorly pays those who produce most and ensure its functioning.
A few days ago, after talking about how her husband died of the effects of coronavirus which he contracted in a food processing plant in Dallas, the Hispanic woman Blanca Parra commented the following on Telemundo: “I know that there were sick people who continued to go to work. I know that there were supervisors who knew that there were sick people there and let them work. I am very disappointed in the humanity of these people in these huge companies who do not value the work of their employees.”
It seems that the second part of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” is being written more than 100 years later, with other immigrants as the protagonists, but suffering the same dismal conditions in life and work.
We cannot go back to “normal” as if nothing had happened or nothing had been proven, above all the inhumanity of the system of things in which we operate and which owes us so many answers, especially who now, including undocumented immigrants, are out there risking their lives to save the rest of the population. If one thing has to be changed or profoundly readjusted it is precisely the way that the socio-economic structure in which our lives unfold functions, above all the way that what is produced and earned is distributed. At the very least, to do justice for those who today are there for the rest of us.
A return to the same, or “‘everything must change so that everything can remain the same,” (Lampedusa’s dictum) would just be a miserable waste of time.
To read the Spanish version of this article click here.