America’s Essential Workers

COVID-19 Reminder of Necropolitics

By Jorge Dante Hernandez Prósperi

“What matters in life is not what happens to you
but what you remember . . . and how you remember it.”

Gabriel García Márquez
1972 Neustadt International Prize for Literature
1982 Nobel Prize in Literature

COVID-19 is said to have brought out the very best and worst in us. We certainly see the “essential work force” in action – those during the worst of times demonstrating to be the best among us. Numbers are for ever burning our eyes. We can choose among the numbers that personally sting the most  . . . Wall Street . . .  the newly infected . . . the death tolls . . .  day, after day, after day. What we consider to prioritize and remember is up to us.

COVID-19 infection and death outcomes continue to be worse for people of color. This is a fact whenever a crisis has taken place in America. But the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed yet another element of America’s underbelly that the scholar Achille Mbembe calls “Necropolitics”how social and political power is used to control people’s lives and determine whether they live or die.

This time we remember the past via a virus that found its way into the meat processing and packing industry exposing what has always been present  . . . Necropolitics . . .  “socio-cultural-political power and control that dictates how some people may live and how some must die.” Yes, not a misprint – MUST die.

Essential Workers . . . sound familiar?  It should . . . we have but to remember. Lest we forget Slavery . . . that slice of historic-selective-amnesia that should never be an option to forget regardless of whether our ancestors came on the Mayflower, cargo ships from Europe, or those recently immigrated documented or not.  

Field slaves were the most common in the south as they produced the most work and profit. They were supervised by an overseer to make sure they toiled in a timely manner from sunup to sunset. Clothing was rationed seasonally. They had breakfast and dinner daily and worked in-between – essentially to keep the economy moving forward – not only for America but Europe as well. Lest we forget . . .

Slavery – multigenerational cataclysmic oppression – inked into our souls . . . 
owned as inherited shame . . . as long as this nation exists. 

The COVID-19 is relentless – persistently showing our underbelly day, after day, after day. We can’t look away –  that option has been eliminated. No excuses, denials, deflections, pointing fingers – America exposed once more. This time by those we call “essential workers.”

Words matter and therefore “Essential” requires scrutiny:  Absolutely necessary, extremely important, vital, crucial, must-have, indispensable, life-and-death imperative . . . of the essence.

We may choose to remember that in 2020 two distinct primary groups emerged. One highly professionally trained in academic spaces. They are called “critical, core and key personnel.” The ones wearing protective masks, gowns, gloves and face shields.

The others called “essential workers” toiling in steamy-stench-filled spaces as servants to the economy trained by toiling on a daily basis from sun up to sun down in fields, canneries and meat processing / packing warehouses.

Essential meat / chicken / swine producing plants across America. Keeping the essential supply available. At what cost? Do their lives and the lives of their family members matter or to be treated as the essential carcasses they process ?

Friday, May 1, 2020 . . . another day to remember among the many since 2016. A day allowing some states to secede once more. A day of liberation – opening up societyallowing well-intended-nice folks to get back to normal – liberate the economy – with no real harm done. All made available by a president bent on using “happy talk” rather than reason-based, knowledge-based, data-based science. Keep the economy going at any price – at least until November.

Political demonstrations supporting the president and extreme conservative politicians protested the censoring of rights and freedoms. They showed up with their Ugly American attire as they always do . . . confederate flags, tactical body armor, AR-15s, swastika symbols, don’t tread on me banners and the mobile Trump float floating anger, fear and chaos . Guess that now that MAGA rallies are quarantined, Trumpers are desperate for public confirmation self-indulgence. Ironically, COVID-19 is not impacted nor influenced by such contrived distractions.

Essential Anti lockdown protesters . . . denial, intimidation, chaos, anger, fear, bitterness . . . NO! not about COVID-19 – It does not exist – only a hoax.

All the while “essential workers” kept the wheels moving . . . in a direction yet to be determined . . . but to be remembered.   

A recent example of “necropolitics” is the Presidential Executive Order to keep the meat-processing plants open leading to a cheapening of lives by subjugating human beings to questionable toxic spaces and conditions that confront workers with the trauma of facing life and death situations for themselves and their families. They can choose to not work under such conditions, but will then lose their unemployment status and therefore will not be paid. One hell of a choice . . . work or risk dying.  A legacy of harvesting shame . . . Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta would ask us to remember.

United Farm Workers . . . still essential . . . many of their children now citizens doing what they do best . . . service as doctors, lawyers, scholars, entrepreneurs, educators, engineers and politicians . . . lest we forget the sacrifices made . . .

In the case of the COVID-19, it has come down to the critical question whether extreme conservatives have a right to kill – to impose death on a group of people. 

As governor Cuomo simply asked on May 5, 2020 during his press conference, “We have a critical question to ask . . . what is the worth – the value of a human life?”

What is the value of a human life?

It’s a simple question that tends (for socio-cultural-political-ideological-religious reasons) to cause pause, angst and haunt us as Americans over and over. Why that damn pause? Does the color of the child’s skin matter – as an infant . . . how about as an adult? What if she/he is your child holding your finger for dear life . . . why that damn pause America?

History informs that we can choose to remember human beings forced to work because they were defined as invaluable to the economy and yet expandable.  We can choose to remember that during the 1700s-1800s the US economy was fueled by slaves providing billions of dollars. Slaves, essential / dispensable commodities not even worthy of placing a grave marker over their buried bodies . . . as if each never existed . . . just “Next Non-Human Up” to keep those essential cotton gins ginning.  

We can choose to remember Germany in the 1930s-1940s, defining / marking its own “essential workers” with a patch on a sleeve. Not only “essential” . . .  but “expendable” to a very nice – well-intended – highly educated society.  

German occupation of Beylorussia WWII

America has always had a ready-made work force to be used and abused as commodities. They came from the Americas, Asia, Europe, Africa, Middle East. They built the country and then struggled and sacrificed to become part of it. Their children are the legacy of those who now save lives.

Who are these “essential workers” of the 21st Century that are now being mentioned so often who live in and out of shadows?  Even Fox News tends to give them a semblance of reserved notoriety – but always short of respect. 

The ones we most often see on the Breaking News are the “critically required group” behind masks. These are the doctors, nurses, medical technicians, paramedics, EMS, Police, hospital workers. There are others doing their part – postmen/women, transportation employees, grocery store employees, delivery drivers . . .  highlighted also as heroes and heroines. Children color- chalk driveways with “Thank You!” Amazon, UPS, Kroger, Costco, Post-wo/man . . . “We see you!”

But even this group is subjected to the “equal but separate” paradox haunting America. Each day we awake to the fact that many in the medical field, professionals speaking with authority and high minded knowledge on CNN, NPR, CBS, NBC, ABC and MSNBC are not only critical, but also first and second generation immigrants.

America sees a rainbow of highly professional human beings, on and off cameras, working as life savers showing their true colors – regardless of the color, ethnicity, and religion of victims requiring their expertise, compassion and empathy.  No floats, flags or guns needed.

COVID-19 trauma team of nurses and doctors responding . . . day, after day, after day, after day . . .

Ironic that some of the victims being treated, would not only choose to remain 6’ apart, but prefer that such “critical workers” go back to where they or their parents came from. Some COVID-19 victims even refusing to be treated by “critical workers” not considered white enough or speaking “the English” not drawly enough. 

For those of you who think, feel, fear and live with such dysfunctional hatred and bitterness . . . “You have my thoughts and prayers.”

There is another group living and working in the shadows as “essential workers” now under critical examination because of the trauma being imposed on them.  They are the human beings in meat / poultry / swine spaces being classified as . . .  “essential” . . . and I posit, as in the past . . . “expendable” – human beings characterized – defined as commodities. Victims of the cold extreme conservative Supply and Demand paradigm and the good old Survival of the Fittest. The trickle down ideology of who is expendable – who gets to live fail-safe lives.

While some protesters, dressed in the politics of fear, bitterness and anger, scream to return to the “good old normal days”, other citizens have begun to critically examine and consider that every human being is “essential” and therefore every policy, every act by those in power must protect human “essentialism.” COVID-19 has awaken some Americans to not only remember, but make it a point not to forget.

This is the America most of us continue to work and sacrifice for. We want an America that is changing for the better, authentically just and true.

COVID-19 is not only a disease, but a referendum – a calling for each of us to once more unequivocally declare and reclaim our humanity . . . to remember it. 

Amplifying . . . Authenticating . . . Speaking . . . Being Truth to Power

COVID-19 has also exposed the best and the worst of our politicians – those entrusted to be credible. COVID-19 – a time to lead with courage, veracity and responsibility to tell us unequivocal truths in the raw because every life is essential on American soil – on earth.

There is no debate with COVID-19 whether American soldiers should be losing their lives in Vietnam or Iraq.  The trauma is now on American soil – every inch of it. This is about us – each of us looking at each other and in the mirror every single morning.  

Americans don’t ask much when electing officials. Recent history teaches that we will even tolerate a charlatan, racist, sexist, misogynist, pathological liar, xenophobe to the highest political office. Yes, this is also who we are in 2020.

History is relentless with its reminders. Cataclysmic multigenerational legacies of trauma brought about by colonialism, slavery, genocide, religious-ethnic cleansing – all well documented for all to study, feel and choose to remember

Unfortunately, our history books throughout our pre-adult 12 years of schooling do little to examine such atrocities. We tend to whitewash and sugar-coat historical trauma. Easier to not remember our savagery by choice and design.

It has been left to serious-minded critical historians, educators, psychologists, quantitative / qualitative researchers, activists and cultural critics to unearth the underbelly of the underbelly of America’s inherited shame. The legacy is deeply painful to confront and admit. It’s easier to look away and try not to remember.

I posit that the majority of Americans, regardless of our backgrounds, try to remember with an emotional, moral intelligence fostering courage, empathy, compassion and justice. I believe – must believe – that 2020 America will choose to remember the exposed inhumanity and humanity – the worst and the best – that COVID-19 made available once more for our critical examination.

There are times in history when a crisis occurs that shakes our very core – do violence to our souls. We live each instance during such trauma as it happens. In time we will choose to remember – not only the what – but remember the essential essence of our humanity.