Months and years from now, there will be two types of stories from the COVID-19 pandemic. Stories of the monotony of working from home, cabin fever, long walks through the neighborhood, online grocery delivery and binge-watching TV. And a very different story from those whose lives felt decimated — their jobs were lost, they couldn’t work from home, they faced a choice between financial survival and their health.
In relatively normal times, it’s been easy for us to forget how radically different our lives are from those with whom we interact, and on whom we depend, every day.
In early March, the Bellevue School District was besieged by calls to close the schools immediately. Microsoft and Amazon are letting employees work from home. Don’t you get it? Just have everyone work from home. Start online learning right now. Seemingly overlooked was that employees we consider essential to supporting our students in ways that many take for granted — our bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitors, special education aides, and many other devoted employees — can’t work from home. They don’t deliver their services via laptop; they can only provide their services in person. But we consider them part of the backbone of our district. As we navigated how best to educate our students in the safest manner possible for them and our teachers and staff, we considered how to do so while still doing right by these valued employees.
Broadening the aperture, we see that society has defined postal workers, delivery drivers, grocery clerks, pharmacists and many other jobs as essential, right there with our first responders — police, nurses and doctors. Indeed, so that we can shelter in place and protect our health, we rely on them to work every day and take on the risks of acquiring COVID-19. We hear nightly refrains of how “we’re all in this together.” And we are. We’re completely reliant on the bravery of these folks who keep showing up for work, despite the risks they face, to stock shelves, drive buses, pick up garbage, deliver packages, ring up groceries, prepare food for take out, and a host of other tasks society has come to recognize we can’t operate without. Looking just a bit farther, we know there are farmworkers in Yakima and Wenatchee working to bring food from the farms to our shelves, many of them undocumented, working nonetheless and without societal support.
If we’re honest, we’ll admit that we’ve tolerated the widening cracks in our society that have allowed some to enjoy health care and basic benefits, while others work at or below minimum wage, getting by paycheck-to-paycheck, with no societal safety net in place for health care or sick leave.
We have a history of rallying in times of crisis but soon forgetting that the road to lasting societal change is long and requires unwavering commitment. We shift attention even where we agree a major debt is owed: We praise and thank our veterans for their service, and yet we live with the knowledge that they’re not getting the physical- and mental-health services they deserve.
When this pandemic finally passes and we find our way back to the semblance of the lives we once knew, let’s remember these workers whom we’ve anointed as essential. Let’s do so in ways that will matter. Let’s indeed push to invest in having emergency supplies, including personal protective equipment for our first responders and health-care workers. And more broadly, let’s advocate for the overdue universal access to health care and paid sick leave that is needed to support every member of our intertwined and interdependent society. In doing so, we’ll go beyond the newest catch phrase to an enduring change that will demonstrate our respect and gratitude.