While the media focused on the devastating effect of coronavirus in big cities, the real hot spots of the crisis were simmering in unexpected places.
As the United States became the global epicenter of the pandemic, it also became increasingly clear that one of the focus of infection is the meat processing plants.
The workers at the plants, most of them Latinos, are at a crossroads of life and death, having to choose between protecting their families and earning a living.
An analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that a disproportionate number of meatpackers in the country are people of color and immigrants, where 44% are Latino, and 25% are African American. Similarly, according to the Office of Minority Health, Latinos are the least insured population in the country.
According to CDC figures, 18% of workers in the plants in Iowa and South Dakota are infected with the new coronavirus. In states like Pennsylvania and Nebraska, they “account for one-quarter of the COVID-19 cases nationwide,” the CDC figures made clear.
Government agencies have been forced to publish figures after industry giants like Smithfield Foods set about reopening their facilities in the country.
The Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for example, “has been tied to 853 infections among 3,100 workers,” according to the Argus Leader newspaper.
Despite publishing a statement listing coronavirus precautions at its facilities, workers and families have organized protests around it in states such as Nebraska, demanding protective equipment, and better working conditions.
According to the Review Atlas newspaper in Illinois, and citing figures from the CDC, 4,913 workers –3 % of the 130,578 employees in the 115 meat and poultry plants in 19 states– have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
About 20 deaths during April were linked to these facilities.
For the CDC, “widespread community transmission in some settings makes determining the source of exposure and infection difficult,” it stated in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The states with the highest infection rates among workers were Iowa at 18.2% and South Dakota at 17.3%, said the MMWR report. The rates were drawn from two plants in each state. Pennsylvania had the highest number of confirmed cases at 858, followed by South Dakota at 794, and Nebraska at 588. Some 22 plants in Pennsylvania reported cases of COVID-19, as did two in South Dakota and 12 in Nebraska.
President Trump, however, has announced the reopening of the plants, using the Defense Production Act and without providing more solutions than those cited by the CDC in the safety protocols.
Although international organizations and specialists insist that social distancing and the closure of public spaces are fundamental to flatten the epidemiological curve, Trump insists on putting the economy above the safety of citizens.
Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Judiciary subcommittee on immigration and citizenship, said it is “ridiculous that the president is ordering undocumented individuals into these hazardous plants while denying them assistance, access to health care and letting them live in fear of the immigration enforcement,” NBC News reported.
Similarly, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, led by Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), urged the government to investigate the conditions of the meat plants before deciding to reopen them.
“Numerous companies across the meatpacking industry have not taken the necessary precautions they need to protect workers,” the Caucus members wrote in a letter to the administration. “While some companies were early actors in providing personal protective equipment, the callous inaction of others has reportedly led to multiple deaths and thousands of sick workers, as well as the death of two inspectors from the Department of Agriculture.”
Although Lofgren and Judiciary Committee Democrats are pushing a proposal to provide temporary protected status to the workers, nothing is definitive yet.
For its part, the Latino civil rights organization LULAC has organized protests like the “Meatless May” campaign in Iowa to boycott industries that are forcing workers back into the plants without any guarantees about their health.
The organization also joined the “Todos con Biden” town hall in support of former Vice President Joe Biden’s candidacy, where a panel comprised of civil rights and labor leader Dolores Huerta, actor and activist John Leguizamo, former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas emphasized the impact of the pandemic on the Latino community and how important it is to get Biden elected next November.
“We can mobilize our Latino community,” said Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers. “With our numbers, we can be deciders. We have to make sure to do the work to get Joe Biden elected. Yes, we can.”
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