Essential Services

When people risk their lives to care for us, they deserve our care too

Back in January, when the news out of China was getting worse, an acquaintance of mine started methodically gathering food, batteries, disinfecting chemicals, medical supplies, and gallon jugs of water. We went to a big box store together (yes, the one with the unionized workers), and she made her way down each aisle, selecting 24-packs of this and that.

Although I was in a stage of disbelief about the crisis to come that now seems darkly comical, and I had only come along for the ride, I understood the purpose of everything but the water. We buy water in anticipation of a significant weather event, I said: but under what conditions would the water stop flowing out of the taps in New York City during a pandemic?

My friend thunked a case of sardines into her cart. She looked at me patiently and said: “When the people who run the utilities are too sick to come to work.”

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In the first weeks of the pandemic, the lead story was of people losing their jobs. There were Uber drivers with no more customers, restaurant workers with no one to cook for and serve, caregivers and cleaners told they were no longer needed as families isolated themselves at home. At the end of March, the New York Times devoted a whole column to the question of whether people who relied on professional housecleaners should risk continuing the service: was it more stressful to not have a clean home or to fear infection? The article asked. A doctor admitted that it was a “roll of the dice” to let “an outsider” into your home.

Yet, while the article noted the economic damage to home and care workers who had been let go, it failed to imagine that they too might fear infection. By what logic do we still believe that middle and upper-class homes are safe — and that it is working people who are carriers of disease?

There is a new category of labor that has become visible during the pandemic: what we now call “front line workers.” Initially imagined to be doctors, nurses, and other hospital employees, this category has expanded dramatically to include everyone whose job is an “essential service.” Overwhelmingly, the people who staff essential services are the working poor. They are bus and train drivers, shelf stockers, grocery and drugstore clerks, social service providers, cafeteria workers, delivery people, and armies of workers who clean. Then there are the people who ensure that food comes to market at all. “Unfortunately, those of us who work in hog farms have to work every day,” a North Carolina man told Time, “since the animals need to be fed every day. If we don’t go, there isn’t anyone to feed them.”

And if no one feeds the animals, or picks and processes the vegetables, or drives the truck, or stocks the shelves, you don’t eat — even if you do have money.

This week, we are pleased to begin our coverage of what the pandemic exposes: the risks that millions of workers run to feed, clothe, and care for a nation of people who often can’t, or don’t want to, see them. Paul Apostolidis, an expert on immigrant labor in the meatpacking industry, starts us off by explaining that the risks workers run to feed us aren't new, but rather result of the systematic elimination of health and safety regulations that has intensified under the Trump administration.

Next in our pandemic coverage is an essay by Julia Foulkes about how central people unknown to us are to urban life. “The nearness and ubiquity of strangers is one of the qualities I love most about New York,” she writes, “but it is the one that makes it so vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic.” Eric Weiskott digs into the question of how those of us confined to our homes — which are now also schools and offices — are experiencing time in a whole new way. Economist Lance Taylor closes by asking: where are all those trillions of federal aid dollars going? (Answer: not to you.)

We then turn to the crisis of democracy, a threat accelerated in some places by the need for emergency powers to fight the virus. In our continued reporting on Hungary’s Orbán government, Kim Lane Scheppele shows why the new “Enabling Act” passed by Parliament on March 20 could be nearly impossible to repeal. Returning to the United States, Jeffrey Goldfarb looks at political power from another angle, the “expressive dimension” that fellow sociologist Erving Goffman understood as vital to all social interactions.

Finally, we end with the importance of the objects we choose to surround ourselves with — or wear. The stakes are high. As Otto von Busch writes, “Fear and anxiety lurk in the seeming shallow waters of fashion, and the perennial possibility of humiliation haunts our everyday relationship with clothes.” Clothes are, as Ellen Sampson reminds us, an archive of the everyday — and they collect memories and signs of how we use and wear them. “Clothes are active objects,” she writes, “busy agents in our networks of things.”

Oh — and before we leave: the answer to the question about what to do about the people who would otherwise come into your home to keep it, and you, clean, safe, and stress-free?

Pay them — then do the work yourself.