How 2020’s Heroes Became 2022’s Acceptable Casualties

It’s almost year three of this never-ending pandemic, and after more than 830,000 deaths and millions of infections, essential workers are beyond burned out. The United States is facing the worst surge of the COVID-19 pandemic yet as teachers, health care workers and other essential employees have borne the brunt of the crisis, with many of them on the brink.

But apparently, no one told New York’s brand-new mayor, Eric Adams, that.

Adams is hellbent on keeping New York City open for business, and when confronted by office workers who’d like to continue doing their jobs from home, he admonished them for not thinking of their friends and neighbors who are simply too dumb for an office job and can’t work from home.

“My low-skill workers — my cooks, my dishwashers, my messengers, my shoeshine people, those who work in Dunkin’ Donuts — they don’t have the academic skills to sit in a corner office,” he said last week. “They need this. We are in this together.”

Not only is “low skill” an insulting term that wealthier people use to demean those who make less money, but does anyone believe that Mayor Adams could last a day washing dishes or serving customers at a Dunkin’ store?

Unfortunately for the people who can’t do their jobs from home, Adams is hardly alone in his thinking. The omicron variant of the coronavirus is smashing infection and hospitalization records, but all your favorite elected politicians are demanding that the machinery of capitalism keep churning, no matter the cost.

Gone are the commercials and ads honoring the essential workers who keep our society functioning. Now you must return to work. If you get sick or, even worse, die while on the job, well, that’s just the cost of capitalism. 2020’s heroes have become 2022’s acceptable casualties.

The basic public health concept of staying home when you’re sick has often been a pipe dream in a country where paid sick leave is a luxury. But somehow during a pandemic, the very idea has grown even more controversial in the United States.

In the spring of 2020, when schools first began shutting down and switching to virtual learning, social media was full of jokes from parents who had a newfound appreciation for the teachers who often spend all day with their kids. As some parents found out for the first time, teaching is an underpaid, underappreciated and often thankless job.

Maybe that’s why it seems as if half the country is demanding teachers to head back to work even if it’s not safe.

In Chicago, the city government was recently locked in a public battle with the Chicago Teachers Union. The crux of the issue was that the union voted to move to virtual instruction as schools deal with staffing issues due to COVID-19, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot was adamant that schools should stay open regardless. The union and the city finally reached an agreement and are set to resume class on Wednesday.

Despite coming to a resolution, the Chicago school battle is a microcosm of the discourse that’s happening online and beyond. Some people believe that schools should stay open because in-person learning is imperative, while others think school districts should first ensure the safety of teachers, staff, students and their families.

Because if teachers and the other staff members that keep schools functioning are sick or vulnerable, what other option do they have? It’s easy to demand that schools stay open, but that can mean demanding teachers come to work while sick.

Even as they insisted that teachers and staff return to school, many television pundits arguing for in-person learning were doing so through video chats from the comfort of their own homes. It’s almost as if cable news studios aren’t safe right now either.

Teachers aren’t the only heroes who’ve become expendable. When New York City was the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, residents would go outside to bang pots and pans at 7 p.m. in a show of support for health care workers who were weathering the worst of the pandemic. Essential workers, as they were classified, were the only thing standing between us and total calamity.

After a summer of dealing with vicious anti-vaxxers — many of whom were convinced that doctors and nurses were all involved in some plot to make people get sick — we are now in the worst COVID-19 surge yet. Now, as we face another impossible wave, sick doctors and nurses are being encouraged to return to work before they’ve even recovered or while still infected.

Eleanor Slater Hospital in Rhode Island, for example, asked infected but asymptomatic staff members to treat patients due to a staff shortage. In a surprise to literally no one, the hospital is now dealing with an outbreak among patients. A hospital spokesperson denied that the sick workers were connected to the outbreak and that their policy followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Where is the federal government while the public is trapped in a cacophony of confusion?

The Biden administration wants to avoid the lockdowns and precautions that defined 2020 and has urged Americans to “learn to live with COVID,” much like the last administration. Does that mean minimizing illness and death and allowing people to recover when they’re sick while striving for some semblance of normal life? Because right now, learning to live with the coronavirus is beginning to look like letting it continue to spread, infect and kill scores of people.

Once it became apparent that the United States didn’t have the collective will to slow the virus down — and was more concerned with keeping the machinery of capitalism churning — there were no more banging pots or commercials about the heroism of the people who clean our streets, make our food and take care of us when we’re sick. Now, they’re selfish and lazy and just looking for a handout. There are no more heroes of the pandemic — only villains.

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