The appalling (and deadly) COVID empathy gap

We’ve seen lots of heroes during the COVID-19 pandemic, from the doctors and nurses working arduous, non-stop shifts caring for sick patients to the farmers, field workers, food processors, and grocery store workers who have kept us fed at the risk of life and health. Human nature being what it is, we’ve also seen some abuses, as well as people refusing to take steps to protect themselves and others by not wearing masks and ignoring social distancing guidelines despite the copious evidence of their benefits.

FILE PHOTO: A Tyson Foods pork processing plant, temporarily closed due to an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), is seen in Waterloo, Iowa, U.S. April 29, 2020. REUTERS/Brenna Norman/File Photo

A story out of Iowa last week may reveal just how low we can go when it comes to callous disregard for our fellow human beings. The Iowa Capital Dispatch reported that in a suit filed against Tysons Foods, management employees at a meatpacking plant in Waterloo “organized a cash-buy-in, winner-take-all, betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many plant employees would test positive for COVID-19.” The suit further alleges that supervisors were directed to ignore COVID symptoms among workers and pressure frontline employees to continue working even if they were sick. COVID infections became so widespread that these same managers began avoiding the factory floor out of fear for their own health. It almost (but not quite) goes without saying that the workers are mainly immigrants and minorities while the managers are mainly not.

To add a final insult to the injury, the suit alleges that executives from Tyson lobbied the Governor of Iowa for protection against lawsuits arising from workplace illnesses. One third of the nearly 3000 workers at the plant have been infected and at least five have died, circumstances that are unfortunately common in the meatpacking industry.

A market economy and the opportunity to rise means tolerating inequality. But it shouldn’t mean tolerating discrimination, abuse, and indifference. It’s time for America to match its rhetorical praise of “essential workers” with policies and actions that honor them by doing more to keep them safe and sanctioning abuses against them.

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