"Social distancing is a privilege," writes Rana Ayyub about her native India (Foreign Policy, 3-28-20), but "social distancing is a privilege" here in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County as well. I am not allowed to hike in Shenandoah National Park for fear that I infect myself or someone else with the coronavirus, but workers in our many poultry plants in the Shenandoah Valley stand shoulder to shoulder all day long, day after day, processing our chicken and poultry. They have no opportunity for social distancing; they are mandated to put themselves in peril.
Harrisonburg and Rockingham County are national "hot spots" on a map correlating high rates of COVID-19 and meat/poultry-processing plants (Johns Hopkins, USDA, WHO, CDC and USA map from "Coronavirus at meatpacking plants worse than first thought," USA Today investigation finds, USA Today, 4-22-20). As I write, there are some 622 cases of COVID-19 in Harrisonburg/Rockingham County, while there are only 11 in Staunton, some 30 miles away! Hot spot! Why?
Our poultry industry has an economic impact of some $14 billion a year and provides chicken and turkey to millions of folks across the US. But the workers, deemed "essential workers" by the new ID cards they were all issued during this crisis, are not being protected from this virus like the rest of us. Schools, colleges, churches, restaurants, lots of stores shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But these hardworking folks continue to go to work every day, often working "2 inches apart," as one poultry worker put it, not the 6 feet recommended to all of us.
There have been massive outbreaks of COVID-19 all across the United States, especially in nursing homes, but also in meat and poultry-processing plants. Smithfield in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, (one hour from where I lived/worked for seven years) has over 900 confirmed cases. Iowa (my home state) has closed plants in Waterloo, Marshalltown, Columbus Junction. Minnesota has closed plants in Worthington, Austin, and other places because of COVID-19 outbreaks.
A dear and beautiful Salvadoran friend, who has dedicated 20 years of her life to working at a Shenandoah Valley poultry plant, said, with much emotion and fear in her voice, "There are so many, many people getting sick [in the plant]." She was the first one to inform us about a poultry worker who died from COVID-19 in Harrisonburg, and estimated that about 200 fellow workers in her plant were out sick last week. But she still has to go to work, to keep her job, to provide for her family, as an "essential worker," even though she worries that she may accidentally bring the virus home to her beloved family. These hardworking folks come home every day to family (who may have asthma, heart conditions, diabetes, bronchitis, be elderly). They pick up groceries, buy gas, attend to necessities.
We need to attend to them, to make sure they are safe. "Social distancing is a privilege," not only in India, but here in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.
Carol Snell-Feikema lives in Harrisonburg.