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. The number of ill and dying too much to bear. We can choose among the numbers that personally sting the most  . . . the newly infected . . . the death toll . . .  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 will 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 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 “essential critical, core and key personnel.” The ones with titles, degrees, wearing protective masks, gowns, gloves and face shields. Our prayers, thoughts and gratitude to each of them and their families.

There is another group 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 2020.

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 self-indulgence.

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 lose their employment status and therefore will not be paid. One hell of a choice . . . work or risk dying.  

A remainder of the 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. 

Again, citizenship asks the critical question: “What is the worth – the value of a human life?”

What is the value of a human life?

It’s a question that tends (for socio-cultural-political-ideological-religious reasons) to cause pause, angst and haunts us as Americans over and over.

Does the color of an infant’s skin matter? How about as an adult? What if she/he was your child holding your finger for dear life?

History will remind that we chose to force human beings to work in harms way because they were defined as invaluable to the economy and yet expandable.  W

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”, declared to be so by 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. They all are crucial to our well being. Each of them as 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. Saving victims regardless of their color, ethnicity, and religion.

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 prefer that such “critical workers” would 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. 

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 embrace 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.

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 – does violence to our souls. We live each instance during such trauma as it happens. In time we will choose to remember the essential essence of our humanity.