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The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed our perspective on so many things.
The world just looks different now, in ways both big or small — from the role of supply chains in keeping our country running to covering one’s face with a cloth mask. We seldom thought about these subjects before. Now they’re part of the national discussion.
In just this way, we’re seeing how important farmers and food production workers are to the country. Sure, in Kansas we’re accustomed to talking about agriculture to a certain degree. But we’re less used to speaking about meatpacking workers, and we almost never consider how the food — once produced — makes it grocery store shelves or restaurants.
Now we see. Now we know.
On one hand, it shows the heroic dedication of these workers. Those keeping our nation fed during these uncertain times deserve our wholehearted applause. In some cases, they have risked their health and lives to do so. In others, they have worked long hours and repeated shifts to meet fluctuating expectations.
But on the other hand, it shows how little our society valued these folks in the past. Farming as a field is notoriously difficult. Meatpacking requires working conditions that many of us would avoid at all costs. And those who drive overnight to bring food across this nation — our truck drivers — can be seen as more machines than people.
Indeed, for every link of the delicate chain that brings us food and clothing a the near-infinite array of comforts, commerce would rather we ignore the humans who make it possible.
It’s easier not to think about the laborers assembling your smartphone overseas. It's easier to discount stories of sweatshops that make that $6 T-shirt possible. It’s easier to think that we’re at the top of the mountain and that the mountain isn’t being supported by the labor of untold fellow souls.
They all deserve better. And rather than simply hailing them as heroes during this crisis — which they most certainly are — we should all remember these revelations once the pandemic passes.
Are meat-packers paid and housed well? Are family farmers able to sustain their investments for generations to come? Are the truck drivers able to capitalize on upcoming technological innovations rather than being swamped by them?
We may not be able to make these moves now, as the news swirls and evolves daily. But we can’t forget that these workers are essential. That word, “essential,” has meaning, and we should all act like it does.