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SHEIKH: Calling essential workers heroes misses point

Column: From the Mountaintop

<p>Mustafa Sheikh is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in public health. His column, "From the Mountaintop," runs on alternate Thursdays.</p>

Mustafa Sheikh is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in public health. His column, "From the Mountaintop," runs on alternate Thursdays.

As the world reacts to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the public discourse has centered on the pandemic. 

It is an important conversation to have: The more we communicate, the more likely we are to find solutions and be clear about problems. Communication can help us determine the specifics of our response to the pandemic. 

Some occupations are deemed essential during a pandemic response. Here, essential means that these people and their businesses are still operating. Healthcare professionals, certain public infrastructure and public health professionals and leaders at different levels of government are all examples of essential workers. Pizza delivery is also essential, as well as grocery stores and gas stations. Walmart in certain areas have switched to only curbside pickup, and so on.

These are generalizations. There are plenty of those who have made the decision to practice social distancing instead of going back to work. Some jobs are simply impossible to do from home, which includes delivering Amazon packages and surgery.

The public discourse regarding low-skill essential employees has turned toward calling them heroes. This is a cop out. It is a way to reframe the argument regarding these human beings. Heroes make the choice to sacrifice themselves for the good of the society they live in. 

Heroics are sacrifices. This can mean endangering oneself for others, like firefighters. It can mean retooling a factory for producing medical equipment, trading one’s time, energy, comfort and safety for the good of others.

These workers may not have the choice to work. They have bills to pay and choosing not to pay them is not an option when work is available.

Calling them heroes does some good. It draws attention to the important work that is being done by them. It is a shoutout for people that deserve some support, attention and praise.

More importantly, though, calling these essential workers heroes is an excuse for not providing them the policy changes that could support them. Proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and increased pay can help protect them and support them.

PPE refers to facial masks, gloves and training on how to use them both properly. The discourse turning to the idea of heroes excuses businesses and the government from making every effort to provide PPE. There is a supply shortage of PPE, but dubbing essential workers as heroes forces them to make sacrifices for the good of the public without the support of safety equipment.

Calling essential workers heroes for their work also distracts from longstanding labor concerns. These people are considered essential in times of crisis but do not consistently receive a living wage normally. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2017 that nine percent of service industry workers are under the federal poverty line.

This is also part of a larger push comparing COVID-19 response to a wartime effort. There are some similarities: manufacturing shifts, decreased consumer confidence, rationing, uncertainty and government-led response.

The differences between the current situation and a war, though, are pretty large. The opposing force is not other people, whereas a war implies that if we kill enough people, we will win. This implication feeds into the narrative that the Chinese people are at fault for COVID-19 which leads to prejudice and discrimination.

COVID-19 is also, for the United States, a domestic issue. For a very long time, wars have been fought overseas in the public consciousness. Framing our present situation as comparable to a war moves the issue from our front door to someone else’s. That is detrimental to convincing people to take social convincing seriously. It also decreases political will in responding to the virus’ spread.

This is not a criticism of individuals. This is a criticism of the overall discourse. If someone is calling an essential worker a hero with positive intent, that is perfectly fine. If someone uses a comparison to wartime to understand the COVID-19 pandemic response, that is understandable. 

It is important, to be cautious with our words and our ideas in the public discourse. Shorthands to communicate with the public can be beneficial, but the goal is to achieve progress. 

Relegating the struggle of essential workers to heroics removes our debt to them. It is a debt that ought to be paid, as they deserve actual support. They deserve safety, they deserve pay that matches the burden they are bearing. They should be above the poverty line.

The idea of pandemic response as a wartime effort is a useful comparison, but the differences are important. COVID-19 should be taken as its own threat with its own reality, so that we can adapt fully to the world we live in rather than the world we are familiar with.

Mustafa Sheikh is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in public health. His column, "From the Mountaintop," runs on alternate Thursdays.


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