Don’t Call Essential Workers Heroes – Have Empathy Instead


Image by Igor Ovsyannykov from Pixabay.

Zachary Lawlor, Contributing Writer

In the article “Social Distancing is a Privilege” by Charles M. Blow, Blow makes the point that, despite how the spread of COVID-19 is being portrayed in the news, poor and working-class Americans are violating shelter in place orders out of necessity. He states that the reason for this is being due to the inability, not an unwillingness to practice social distancing. Citing statistics from 2 major American cities he points out a statistical correlation between deaths from the virus and race. Though it’s addressed in passing Blow asserts an intersection at race and poverty in America. Blow also notes that in an article by the Economic Policy Institute only 9.2% of workers in the lowest quartile can work from home compared to 61.5% of those in the highest quartile. Another important factor in this, he says is not having access to private transportation which, like social distancing, is a luxury. Blow also believes there is a lack of empathy for those who have to work during a shelter in place which stems from a greater lack of empathy towards the poor in America.

This article hit home for me because I and most of my peers have had to work through the outbreak and I know some who have almost certainly contracted the virus but have had to more or less tough it out or face fanatical uncertainty or even eviction. Luckily, no one I know has died but because of the stigma associated with infection and fear of losing much-needed income they have not sought help. Furthermore, the industries considered “essential” include retail, maintenance, and food service all of which generally pay close to minimum wage and generally don’t have adequate health insurance plans. Based on what I have experienced since shelter in place orders have been made I agree with Blow’s assertion that COVID-19 will, like most sicknesses affect poor and working-class people most. I also agree that the portrayal of those contracting the virus as irresponsible is inaccurate, insensitive, and comes from a place of privilege.

It is easy to say stay at home when a home has everything you need and what you don’t have can be delivered. It easy to say “avoid people, work remotely” when your job can be done from a computer. Likewise, it’s easy to call grocery store workers “Heroes,” however like the other two assertions it implies a choice. Like many problems in America, those with means assume that a choice was made on the part of those working to do so. Blow, in his article calls it a callus message, that the best defense against COVID-19 is something that each of us can control. This is symptomatic of the fact that Americans view themselves as sovereign masters of their own destiny, able to achieve anything with grit and determination. It would be hard to convince someone who has achieved some degree of success believing this that external forces influenced or facilitated such.

Many of the same factors that have made it hard to stop working during the outbreak also lead to a less healthy overall lifestyle. Arguably one of the best ways to survive infection is to be healthy in the first place, something which is hard to do if one’s job does not offer adequate health coverage or time off to use it. Many retailers, though not expressly requiring it, pressure workers into working while sick. Lack of downtime, changes in schedule and, shifts which limit one’s access to proper sleep can also put undue stress on the immune system. These are not conditions anyone would choose to work in and yet this is the norm for so many workers.

Much of social media and the traditional news outlets frame violation of shelter in place as a defect of character. Prior to the recent outbreak, one’s inability to make enough to live or pay ever-increasing rent was viewed similarly. This lack of compassion some have is a byproduct of capitalism as much as needing to work and be exposed to the virus is for many others. This virus will continue to affect the poor disproportionately and not out of ignorance or cavalier either. I believe empathy, not praise, pity, or scorn, but empathy should be the only feeling one has towards those working through the COVID-19 outbreak.