The coronavirus sure has got our number.
Maybe nowhere has the onset of the pandemic spotlighted the hypocritical realities of modern American life more clearly than in the farm fields of Washington.
Farmworkers, many of them undocumented and for decades relegated to live in the shadows, suddenly have been classified, by the federal Department of Homeland Security, as “essential critical infrastructure workers” in the fight against the disease.
Many migrant workers are now being given letters — papers, if you will — that grant them special license to violate stay-at-home orders so they can freely go to work to pick vegetables and fruit.
“The fact that there is that cognitive recognition that we have to allow these individuals to travel to and from work because they are critical — that’s the complete opposite of what they’ve heard for nearly their entire lives,” a Northwest dairy farmer told The New York Times.
So the people we’re building a wall to keep out — it turns out we need them now?
Of course we’ve always needed them — the fruit pickers, the asparagus cutters, the roughly 200,000 campesinos who help keep Washington state’s grocery stores stocked with produce and milk. It’s just the pandemic now is forcing our two-faced system to admit it.
“We will continue to work because we understand that in times of crisis we must show solidarity,” said Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a small union of Mexican farmworkers in Skagit and Whatcom counties. “However we ask ourselves, we are working for what exactly? To maintain the status quo? Get sick and no health care plan for us? Getting paid at poverty levels? Hunted down by ICE?”
These are great questions. But they’re great questions whether we’re having a national emergency or not. Can we go back, once this is over, to trying to deport millions of people who the government just acknowledged are a critical national resource?
That’s a question I asked last week: Will we go back? I asked it in respect to how local government suddenly is responding with more alacrity to “crises long in plain view, like homelessness,” as well as “absurd, gouging rules” such as airline fees and airport security.
“The COVID-19 crisis has stripped away the mask,” wrote Guy Hoyle-Dodson, of Lacey, in response to that column, one of hundreds of Seattle Times readers to do so.
“Guaranteed income? Not a problem, if only to save our consumer economy,” he went on. “Housing the underclass? Only makes sense, to protect the overclass.”
Wrote reader Cheryl, no last name: “Define your emergency — when it hits the right people, it’s an emergency,” she said. “Before that it’s a line item we may or may not have the resources for.”
“We are at the threshold of a major change in the conversation about what this country is and stands for,” suggested Seattle’s Alan Erickson.
Maybe. Many readers wrote to caution that we’ve told ourselves this beguiling story before — that 9/11, or the collapse of the Wall Street casino in 2008, would lead to fundamental shifts in American policy or the safety net. They did not.
Wrote Denny Johnston, of Olympia: “My stages of responding to crises such as 9/11 and the like are: 1. Shock. 2. Fear. 3. Oh no, we’re not going to learn one decent thing from the sacrifice we are about to make.”
Tacoma’s John Gizzi was blunter.
“Yeah, we’ll go back,” he wrote. “That’s the one thing we can count on: America returning to its comfortable place of ignorance and willful blindness.”
But many readers had suggestions for a different future.
“When this is over, if those who can were to telecommute from home one day per week, Seattle would solve its traffic congestion,” an anonymous reader suggested.
“During our working from home we’re being so damn European these days … having home cooked lunches, stores are closing at reasonable hours, people are going out for strolls. What is this, Switzerland?!” wrote Elizabeth Mahan. “All to say, everyone in this country deserves a higher quality of life, and now we know we’re capable of it.”
Wrote Jean Enersen (yes, that Jean Enersen, of KING 5 broadcasting fame):
“To your list I would add: a medical floor under all of us. The pandemic may be a great leveler, and community builder, with folks recognizing a pandemic that strikes one can affect us all.”
Yes, the great leveler. In its attack, the coronavirus has shown zero interest in our usual divisions of politics, class or culture. I’m not saying everyone is experiencing its harms equally. But it is uniquely a communitywide problem. So once it ebbs, once we’re through to the other side, will we take up our tribal resentments quite so vigorously as before?
I don’t know. But if you’d predicted to me that the Department of Homeland Security would declare the long-maligned farm fieldworkers to be a critical national resource, in the middle of an election year in a country that two minutes ago was inflamed about wall-building and immigration, I would have said: You’re dreaming.
So maybe dreaming of a new course isn’t so crazy or naive right now after all.