What Happens if America’s 2.5 Million Farmworkers Get Sick?

A century ago in “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair wrote about how the teeming tenements and meatpacking houses where workers lived and labored were perfect breeding grounds for tuberculosis as it swept the country.

Now there is a new pathogenic threat and the workers who feed us are once again in grave danger. America’s 2.5 million farmworkers are among the groups most at risk of contracting the coronavirus. And if they are at risk, our food supply may be too.

Picture yourself waking up in a decrepit, single-wide trailer packed with a dozen strangers, four of you to every room, all using the same cramped bathroom and kitchen before heading to work. You ride to and from the fields in the back of a hot, repurposed school bus, shoulder-to-shoulder with 40 more strangers, and when the workday is done, you wait for your turn to shower and cook before you can lay your head down to sleep. That is life for far too many farmworkers in our country today.

Those conditions, the result of generations of grinding poverty and neglect, will act like a superconductor for the transmission of the coronavirus. And if something isn’t done — now — to address their unique vulnerability, the men and women who plant, cultivate and harvest our food will face a decimating wave of contagion and misery in a matter of weeks, if not days.

Their dilemma is painfully simple: The two most promising measures for protecting ourselves from the virus and preventing its spread — social distancing and self-isolation — are effectively impossible in farmworker communities. There are no seats in the bus that will provide the six feet of separation necessary to ward off the killer virus. There are no empty rooms in the trailer available for a sick worker to recover in while his or her meals are left outside the door. And all the remaining preventive measures in the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention playbook — hand-washing, elbow-coughing — can only slow the virus, they can’t stop it.

By Greg Asbed for THE NEW YORK TIMES
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