If you want to watch a real-time experiment on equality in America, pay attention to the way Covid-19 vaccinations are being distributed.
So far, the results have been a little disheartening. The national news is full of bold-faced names posing under the cricket-click of news cameras as they roll up their sleeves to expose pasty arms to the first of two needles that could save them. That some of these are politicians who earlier dismissed the virus’s danger is the height of irony. And yes, I said pasty.
Add to the bloated front line a small army of Congressional staffers, the oil that keeps our government machine running. If only more political leaders looked to the example of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who announced she would not get in line for the vaccine in front of frontline workers and teachers. Her decision is even more newsworthy given that her father, Nur Omar Mohamed, died from complications of the virus in June.
We’ve seen our own underbelly, when rich people offer to pay to cut the line. We can be angry, or we can accept that rich people believe money automatically puts them in front of the line, any line. They’ve been trained to think that way and it’s mostly true.
Locally, we are told that Connecticut is in the first phase of its vaccine roll-out, with the first shots going to healthcare personnel (who are working in person), first-responders (who answer 911 calls), and people who live in long-term care facilities. Madison just opened a vaccination center for first-responders in the town’s gym. New Haven’s fire chief, John Alston Jr., got his shot last week and said, “Let the healing begin.”
Next up, according to the state’s website, will be members of the state’s “critical workforce.” The details are still being worked out, but this is where the experiment gets interesting. Who, precisely, is “critical?” Doctors and nurses and PAs are, of course, but what about the people who clean the bed pans, mop the blood from the floor, and clean up after people die? asks Amos L. Smith, the CEO for the social service agency Community Action Agency of New Haven.
This virus has forced us to ask the question: How much is a human life worth? While we argue about closing stores and sending people home for weeks or months, the NPR show, “Planet Money,” said that economists say the figure hovers around $10 million, though some of the people who’ve already been vaccinated act as if they’re worth more.
Smith suggests we broaden our definition of “critical” and “essential.” Case in point: Employees at his agency worked through the pandemic to make sure food was delivered and the lights stayed on for some of their 9,345 struggling families.
Smith is quick to say this is not to compare his agency’s work with that of people who work in hospitals, but without a significant number of brave non-profit employees, Connecticut could have plunged into unimaginable chaos. Smith said his employees spent the pandemic’s first 90 days delivering food to people who weren’t recipients of Meals on Wheels, and were too vulnerable to go buy their own groceries. One of their clients was a woman who was over 100 years old. His staff was willing to take the risks, he said. Wasn’t that critical?
Early on, the Department of Homeland Security identified essential workers as people who work in the country’s “critical infrastructure,” including (but not limited to) farmers and defense workers. In June, Gov. Ned Lamont issued a report with a long list that included grocery workers, childcare providers, and people who clean buildings.
Can we consider those folks essential? Even with the much-discussed federal stimulus bill and the relief it extends to people whose unemployment benefits were about to end, the next few weeks (and maybe months) are going to hurt. According to a September Connecticut Voices for Children report, the state has “one of the highest levels of economic inequality as well as one of the slowest levels of economic growth” in an epoch of horrific inequality. The only fix is a restructuring of the state’s economic system, says the report.
Meanwhile, a paycheck is one means by which we show a worker’s value. Workplace protections are another. This pandemic has shown us that we regularly treat essential workers as expendable. We pay them poverty wages and then we don’t provide them with something as simple as a mask when they need one. A September Brookings Institution study said workers at low-paying jobs, workers of color, those with less education who work in the service industry have kept the economy running in these darks months, all while bearing the sad brunt of the country’s leadership’s stalling, lies, and poor decision-making.
What in our recent past makes us think the people who drive garbage trucks and buses will continue to shore up an economy that victimizes them unduly? Can we at least let them to the front of the line?