Mexican farmworkers (photo by Jacob Anikulapo, Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0
As we face empty grocery shelves the fragility of our highly consolidated food system has become clear during the crisis of COVID-19. We see a market that lacks the resiliency to shift supply lines and fill those shelves, but also a food system that does not provide (and in most cases never has provided) fair wages or adequate safety protection to workers. While farmers have worked below their cost of production for decades, they now face the prospect of lost markets and even lower prices for livestock. Milk and produce that cannot move to processing plants must be destroyed.
Farmers who are part of the industrialized system may now face the task of “depopulating” their livestock because the system has failed. The rampant spread of COVID-19 among workers has closed processing plants across the county. Loosing their markets is an economic tragedy for farmers while people go hungry. Having to dispose of their crops or animals is emotionally heart-breaking. Yet forcing meat processing workers to risk their lives is downright criminal. Industrial farming and processing is not a good system for farmers. It clearly doesn’t ensure there will be no food shortages. And it is inhumane to animals and workers.
As Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers considers making direct payments to farmers, he must consider the small farmers and farm workers rather than targeting the aid to commodity growers and agribusiness corporations as happened with previous COVID 19 aid packages. The governor should keep in mind that a more diversified food system, one with more small farms and local processing facilities, rather than one in a constant state of consolidation, is much more resilient and less susceptible to the weaknesses that we see occurring due to this pandemic.
More than 40 years ago as a graduate student gathering research data, I spent considerable time in what was then the John Morrell plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. The pace of the work and the speed of production, while intense, were a fraction of what is expected of workers today. Today, working shoulder-to-shoulder at present production speeds, safe physical distancing is impossible. That plant where I spent time as a grad student, now owned by Smithfield, is much larger and now processes only pork. It was one of the first processors to close due to workers being infected with COVID-19.
The workers I knew were union members, they were paid well enough to buy cars, homes and send their kids to college. Over the past decades the workforce is increasingly made up of immigrants and minorities, people who have been a target for President Trump. Meat processing was always dangerous work, but COVID-19 has upped the ante. The recent executive order to force plants to re-open while relying on plant owners to determine what additional safety measures were feasible — as opposed to health and workplace safety experts, has highlighted Trump’s disdain for the people who do so much of the backbreaking labor to produce Americans’ food.
Meat industry experts claim, “It is not a broken system by any means”, and of course they claim plant “shutdowns were a Black Swan event”— meaning they were not predictable. Please. A highly consolidated system with millions of animals running through too few giant processing plants has always been a disaster waiting to happen. The system is not, as Progressive Farmer magazine calls it, “a well oiled machine,” while also noting that “USDA has initiated steps to limit labor shortages for critical tasks”— sure, bring on the forced labor of immigrants and minorities. Or, perhaps, let’s have less meat and more personal protective equipment?
The COVID-19 pandemic itself was not a Black Swan event either, it has always been just a matter of time until there was a worldwide pandemic. When it would happen, where it would begin, how it would start, how fast would it spread, could the spread be stopped — that was unknown. While the eventual occurrence was inevitable, the reaction of people and nations was not totally predictable.
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When COVID-19 began its sweep across the world, governments had varying levels of pandemic preparedness. Some were better than others, but no one was truly prepared.
Regardless of preparedness, some countries’ willingness to take the threat seriously, by putting people’s safety above economic growth, as opposed to acting on “gut instinct,” were borne out in infection and mortality rates. Some governments, supposedly well prepared for a pandemic like the U.S. or the U.K., had leaders that either saw COVID-19 as no big deal, valued economic growth more than people’s lives or saw their exceptionalism as being enough to somehow prevent a crisis.
President Trump’s gut feeling and vast ego guided his reaction to the pandemic, as he told the Washington Post, “My gut tells me more sometimes, than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.” But the virus didn’t just disappear, nor did the initial few cases go “close to zero” as Trump said in February. Instead infections have eclipsed one million with no end in sight. Trump continues to defend his false predictions by saying cases will go to zero — ultimately true, I guess. And Trump will leave office, ultimately.
The pandemic showed that countries like Australia and New Zealand fared much better because people there took the pandemic threat seriously as did their governments. Rather than following pompous gut feelings, they acted quickly, shut the country down, enacted wage payment plans for workers, secured medical equipment and brought the spread of the virus under control quickly enough that their economies could begin to reopen safely.
Denial, inaction, lack of testing, lack of medical equipment, slow implementation of physical distancing and business shutdowns didn’t work very well for the United States. Rates of infection and deaths make that clear. The pandemic continues to take a terrible toll on the U.S. and it has also showed us that being the best prepared country in the world doesn’t mean much if you don’t act.
Our healthcare system left millions without insurance when they became unemployed. We lacked hospital beds and medical equipment because our for-profit healthcare system is not a healthcare system, but a sick-care system. There is no profit from having empty beds and equipment in reserve.
The inability of the healthcare system to cope certainly does not reflect on the workers within the system, they are doing their best considering the care they give has always been contingent on corporate bottom lines. The inadequacies of the for-profit healthcare system laid bare by COVID-19 are not a Black Swan.
Will shortages of medical supplies, inadequate healthcare coverage, corporate bailouts or food shortages cause us to demand a better society, or will we just hope, after these entirely predictable failures, to return to normal, even though normal didn’t work for most of us?
It’s almost like we all have Stockholm Syndrome, defending parts of our society that lack compassion and that put us all at risk. Unless we resist, the administration and the powers that be will never admit that they were ill-prepared and made mistakes. They will continue to defend their flawed social, economic and ideological principals. And we will all be sitting ducks for the next global crisis.
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