From windows and rooftops through the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions around the world cheered essential workers on the frontlines who daily risked contracting this highly contagious disease. Janitors, grocery store workers, drivers, warehouse workers, letter carriers, food delivery people, teachers and transit workers, along with the doctors, nurses, and hospital staff caring for patients, all became heroes as the worst pandemic in a century swept the planet. Thousands of these frontline workers died.
As we celebrate Labor Day, traditionally marked by cookouts and beaches followed by the return to school, we should honor these fallen heroes—by wearing masks, social distancing, and fighting for a science-driven course correction to this country’s catastrophic pandemic response. President Donald Trump must invoke the Defense Production Act, making hundreds of millions of free masks and tests available, coupled with contact tracing, isolation and quarantine.
Kaiser Health News and The Guardian built a regularly updated database of frontline U.S. healthcare workers who died of COVID-19; as of this week, 1,079 were on that list.
Among them, 39-year-old Adiel Montgomery, a security guard at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in Brooklyn. In late March, he lost his sense of taste and smell and had flu-like symptoms. Two weeks later, he suffered acute chest pain and died suddenly. He had complained about the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), which eventually arrived, just not in time to save him.
In Arizona, Cheryl and Corinna Thinn, sisters from the Navajo Nation, both worked at Tuba City Regional Health Care as an administrator and a social worker, respectively. Before they both became ill around March 20th, each, without facemasks, had interacted with patients, and had expressed concerns about the PPE shortage. Cheryl succumbed to COVID-19 on April 11th, Corinna on April 29th. The Navajo Nation’s per capita coronavirus infection rate is among the highest in the United States, with over 500 deaths at last count.
Meatpacking workers toil shoulder-to-shoulder, exacerbating the risk of infection. At a JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak has infected close to 300 out of 3,000 workers, killing six of them—all immigrants. Tin Aye, 60 years old, fled Burma and lived in a refugee camp in Thailand before making it to the U.S. The day after she became a grandmother in late March, she was put on a ventilator. She died on May 17th.
Stories like these dot the nation, as the number of COVID-19 deaths nears 200,000 with no signs of slowing. The true number of essential workers who have died will never be known, as they are not tracked by any federal agency. Trump has consistently downplayed the numbers of cases and victims, pushing false cures and conspiracy theories instead of leading a coordinated response.
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Around the country, thousands of meatpacking plant workers have become infected; scores have died. UFCW, the United Food and Commercial Workers union, criticizes the failure to compel corporations that employ its members to report COVID-19 deaths: meat processors JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill, and Smithfield Foods, and retailers like Walmart, grocery chains like Albertsons and Kroger, and many more.
Frontline, essential workers are disproportionately people of color, with many sectors staffed predominantly by immigrants. They drive the economy, grow and deliver food, clean and care for the elderly and provide childcare. Few have the luxury to decide to work from home. They don’t have sick days, or access to affordable health care. Medical workers still report PPE shortages.
The United States, the wealthiest nation in history, has just over 4% of the world’s population but over 20% of the recorded COVID-19 deaths. Trump’s abdication of responsibility, rushing to reopen the economy while downplaying the pandemic as an election year strategy, has been stunning, deadly and potentially criminal.
Worker resistance to Trump’s lethal pandemic response is growing. Teachers around the country have been pushing back against plans to reopen schools quickly without plans and equipment in place to protect them, their students or staff, in a number of cases threatening to strike.
In Detroit, 1,600 nursing home workers represented by the Service Employees International Union, SEIU, are threatening to strike as well, demanding a living wage, PPE, and better staffing levels to properly handle the threat of the coronavirus to nursing home residents and staff.
As you celebrate this Labor Day, also commit to solidarity with our essential workers. The shouts of support for them from the windows and rooftops may have diminished as the pandemic drags on, but the risks they face every day have not.