David Hecker: COVID-19 shows we need to recommit to economic and racial justice

April 28, 2020 6:02 am

A U.S. Postal Service (USPS) worker wears a mask and gloves while delivering mail near a Food Bank distribution for those in need, as the coronavirus pandemic continues, on April 9, 2020. | Mario Tama/Getty Images

During the meetings I’ve been in as the state has dealt with the fallout of COVID-19, consistent, common themes arise, including: the devastating effects this crisis has on hourly employees who struggle to make ends meet; the disproportionate impact the virus has had on African-American communities; and the digital divide our students face. 

“The coronavirus doesn’t discriminate” has become an increasingly popular talking point among people determined to ignore the disproportionate effect this crisis is having on marginalized communities across our state. 

Frankly, it’s a meaningless statement precisely because rampant economic inequality and institutional racism make this pandemic especially dangerous for our most vulnerable populations. Consequently, there needs should be the primary focus of any coronavirus relief plan. COVID-19 must be a wake-up call to right the wrongs ingrained in our society and our economy.

Right now, COVID-19 is hitting the Detroit area hard with roughly 90% of Michigan’s fatal cases falling in Detroit and surrounding communities. Many of these households, particularly in Detroit, are predominantly Black and low-income. Although Black residents only make up about 14% of the state’s population, they account for roughly 40% of the deaths related to the virus. There have been days in Detroit when positive tests outnumber negative tests.

Students across Michigan are facing difficult circumstances without the ability to go to school. Educators are providing opportunities for distance learning, but about one-third of students — 500,000 — do not have access to the internet, and so are furnished hard copy “education packets.”  

This is especially true for white children in rural Michigan and Black and Latino children in the inner city, but it’s an issue for students in every community. Online is no substitute for teachers interacting with students in the classroom, and education packets are not the equivalent of online learning. And many of these same students rely on school-provided breakfast and lunch.

Meanwhile, many of those in our most vulnerable communities are more likely to be expected to work in spite of the pandemic. Low-wage workers face significant hardships in the best of times — and now, they’re being asked to come into work and risk infection to keep our society afloat. Not all these workers have paid sick leave. Many aren’t receiving hazard pay. Some workplaces aren’t taking the necessary precautions to keep their workers safe.

Recently, a Detroit bus driver who had reported that he had been coughed on while working died of COVID-19. Amazon workers in Romulus have walked out to protest the company’s failure to protect them on the job. Nurses and health care workers across the state and their unions are demanding better treatment and more safety precautions as they work on the front lines of this crisis.

Workers are not cogs in a machine — they’re people with lives and hopes and dreams and families — and while they’re out there working hard to protect us, they deserve to know they’ll be taken care of. Unions have fought hard to secure hazard pay, personal protective equipment and safe workplace standards as this virus has gripped our state, but more needs to be done to ensure all workers are protected.

This crisis has magnified the need to reshape our society to include the needs of marginalized people who have been ignored for too long. While many of us stay home, we’re depending on the labor of farm workers, grocery store employees, nursing home and elder care workers, janitorial staff, truck and bus drivers, sanitation workers and so many others who have been underpaid, mistreated, and dismissed — even as the nation depends on their labor. 

I’d like to think this could be a wakeup call about how widespread inequality and institutional racism affects Michiganders. I’d like to think that, as a community, we consider critically how the health and wellbeing of all of us is defined by the health and well-being of our most vulnerable and overlooked.

Here’s some good news: There are steps we can take to make this better. Policies like universal paid sick leave, a $15 minimum wage and laptops and internet access to low-income students are possible. And the fact that many people continue to not have health care is a disgrace. 

It shouldn’t take a pandemic to get us all on the same page when it comes to human worth and dignity — but since it’s here, let’s take the opportunity to come together and recommit to economic and racial justice and equity.

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David Hecker
David Hecker

David Hecker has served as president of AFT Michigan since 2001. Previously, he was secretary-treasurer of the state federation. A member of the AFT executive committee, Hecker was first elected as an AFT vice president in 2004.