Whose lives matter, and what are they worth to our leaders?

I’ve been uneasy about the “balance” that our President and a number of governors are expressing between saving people’s livelihoods and rescuing our economy, on one side, and keeping down the terrible illness and death caused by coronavirus, on the other. This two-way balance was complicated by warm weather, which brought young people to parks and beaches, and so added springtime exuberance to the economic side, while increasing the illness and death side of the scale. 

I began to wonder: How much is a life worth?  Are some lives more valuable than others? 

Early on in our country’s less than five-month history with COVID-19, it seemed that the elderly were most prone to its infection. Counting myself among the elderly, I was reassured that I was able to stay at home, but suspicious that the deaths of those of us on Social Security were a little too easily accepted, as if each death was unburdening a system supposedly running out of money.

As the analysis of who was catching the virus, and under what circumstances, grew more complex, compromised immune systems became a causal factor, as did living or working in close quarters, which was why COVID-19 was raging in nursing homes and prisons.  

Recently the high rates of COVID-19 among African Americans, immigrants and the poor have made clear that, as in every other arena, “Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose,” as Billie Holiday once put it so beautifully. By a cruel irony, African Americans constitute 13% of our population, but provide a third of all nurses; as front-line workers, often without proper protective equipment, they have been particularly exposed to the virus.  

The prairie states, which house our meat packing industry, have experienced a surge of coronavirus spread by workers standing shoulder to shoulder as they chop up pork, beef and chicken. These processing plants draw their workers from our immigrant poor; half of all workers in these plants are undocumented immigrants, without either health insurance or savings, and often fearful of checking into a hospital. 

The risk these workers live with has been exacerbated by President Trump’s executive order insisting that the plants stay open and workers remain on the job. As one worker in Greely, Colorado put it: “We signed up to process meat. We did not sign up to die.” That food processing workers who are ill are being forced to come to refrigerated plants and stand next to each other as the meat comes down the assembly line so that Americans can continue to enjoy a hamburger or piece of chicken goes far beyond a careful balancing of livelihoods and the economy with safety.  

Since most of those likely to succumb to the virus are not among the young, rich, or powerful, I also need to ask: how many illnesses and deaths from coronavirus among waitresses, cooks, personal trainers and hairdressers would you trade for keeping open one restaurant, gym or beauty salon? Or, with summer coming on, how many now-healthy nurses and other hospital workers are you willing to put at risk for a nice day at the beach?   

I know the balance is delicate. With single mothers who have lost their jobs and are acting as at-home teachers for their children while trying to feed them without unemployment insurance, and whole families waiting patiently in a long line of cars for a box of donated food, not all the argument is on one side. But before we agree to a run of deaths among our black, brown, poor and elderly neighbors, we need to guarantee protection for everyone. This means a ready supply of masks and other personal protective equipment, but it also means ample testing, tracing, tracking and whatever else develops, to insure our safety.  

 

Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories.  She is trained as a spiritual director.

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