COVID-19 puts frontline workers at unacceptable risk

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are you at risk in your workplace? air focus via Unsplash

Isolation guidelines ignore utter lack of support from government

For months, we’ve been hearing a lot of things about how to manage COVID-19 and stop the spread. Keep your personal bubble small. Wear a mask when you go outdoors. Get no-contact deliveries when you order in. Maybe order in your groceries as well. And while we are still, incredibly, having anti-masker protests downtown (I recently saw a picture of someone holding a sign that said “Stop mask child abuse”—there’s a lot to unpack there), many people have been outspoken and diligent about those things. The students that I’ve talked to in particular have spent most of the pandemic inside their homes and limiting contact with anyone, which I think has genuinely saved lives in a lot of cases.

But those highly socially distanced people do not represent everyone. There are also a large number of people in Regina who regularly interact with strangers, go to stores and restaurants, make contact with a lot of potentially infected objects and spaces, and have a much wider personal bubble than the rest of us. And in some cases, the people who are “doing their diligence” are highly judgmental of anyone who is not.

Here’s the thing, though. A lot of those people who aren’t “doing enough”? I don’t blame them.

That’s because a lot of those people are being exposed to COVID and “acting like things are normal” not out of a refusal to follow COVID protocols, but because they are workers. And even though we are in a second wave where our ICUs are filling to capacity, we’re living in a twisted situation where it’s bosses, not workers or even public health officials, who determine what is “safe enough.”

There are many who are either rich enough or unconnected to frontline workers enough to be ignorant of this situation, but hundreds of people in this pandemic are putting themselves in entirely avoidable, highly dangerous situations every day just because they need a paycheck. It is a lot easier for a person to say “stay home” in response to every threat when they still get income at home. For a person who needs to go outside to go to work, though – and the unemployment relief that Trudeau afforded us is no longer enough – “stay home” won’t keep them alive. People are finding themselves wondering, what will kill me first? COVID or starvation?

I know people who have worked in buildings with COVID patients – not hospitals, but places of business. I know people who have been in service jobs where the regular abuse that comes with that work, like being spit on by customers, has turned into a threat on their lives. I know people who have not been able to get tested for COVID, despite being exposed multiple times, because they were not able to get a day off to do so and because they could not guarantee that they could afford self-quarantine. Every time some of us order a meal on Uber Eats with no-contact delivery, there are others working to make that food in a cramped space with coworkers who have been potentially exposed every day because they’re coming to work.

The doubly bleak thing is, this divide between the stay-at-home and the occupationally exposed is not caused by the needs of the stay-at-home, either. Those of us who are distancing as much as possible are still doing a necessary and vital thing. Further, many of those staying at home are disabled people who have always relied on services like delivery to get basic needs met. The changes that have happened under COVID have saved lives for those reasons, too, and proven that many of the things disabled people were denied before are possible.

And yet, the cost of the way we’re doing things now is simply too high. We’re asking working class people to put their lives on the line every day so that the rest of us can protect ourselves, and that amounts to social murder.

What is the solution? I don’t have a definitive answer, but simply put, it starts with refusing to individualize the COVID response any longer. Stopping the spread of this virus was never going to be achieved by making changes to our personal routines and retreating into our own private spheres as far as we could, as much as we could afford. Instead, we need to have a government that is doing everything in its power to allow us to isolate. When there is still an actual expectation for workers to throw themselves into the line of infection to “keep the economy going,” how can anyone expect an entire country to prioritize isolation? Especially when it comes to people in the gig economy, working at places like Uber that are busier than ever? Those people need to pay their rent so they will have a dwelling where they can isolate, but instead of addressing rent, the government is pushing more masks and guidelines. That is useless if people can’t afford to follow them.

We need to stop shaming people as individuals for not isolating enough, when we can see that we aren’t living in a system that prioritizes public health over profits and “a sense of normalcy.” We especially need to stop doing that from inside our homes when we ourselves don’t have to be working “as normal” in a situation that is deadly. Instead, we need to think about how we can support each other materially – with money, with food, with shelter – and how we can pressure the government and demand that they support those needs for everyone. Until people can stay home regardless of their class, it’s just insulting to tell that to a person who still relies on service jobs paycheck to paycheck, who isn’t receiving any support for their debt or their rent.

The disregard for the health and safety of workers has always been outrageous, but COVID has made it even clearer. If we are serious about saving lives from this virus, we will prioritize rent relief, paid sick days, and accessible healthcare. And every time the government refuses to do that, they are passively telling us what lives they do not value.

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