While cases of COVID-19 have appeared to go down in frequency, in large part due to social distancing practices and daily use of facemasks, the pandemic is far from over. And yet, all 50 states have begun to open up, despite advisories from public health experts warning that opening the country again could lead to further and more severe outbreaks. No area of the country has been as brazen as the South; Texas, for example, began reopening as early as May 1st 2020: retail spaces, gyms, salons, and restaurants (at 50% capacity) are just a few of the businesses that have been granted permission by the governor, Greg Abbott, to open to the public.
The push for a regained sense of normalcy from Southern states is concerning because it will inevitably lead to another outbreak; furthermore, the small and rural cities that dominate the landscape of South have yet to reach even their first peak and, with a lack of social services and hospitals, those cities will be hit the hardest in the second major outbreak that is to come. New outbreaks will bring new challenges to the United States, and long standing racial discriminatory practices will only exacerbate these challenges: one such practice, redlining, threatens to disproportionally harm the health of Latino communities across small and rural Southern cities (thereby plunging the United States into a massive meat shortage).
"...animal slaughter laborers are in close quarters to one another for long shifts with little to no Personal Protective Equipment."
Redlining is a practice dating back to the 1930’s, where government surveyors segregated primarily People of Color (POC) and poorer non-northern European immigrants into “hazardous” neighborhoods; while redlining was outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, low-income minorities, primarily African American and Latinos, still make up the bulk of these segregated neighborhoods in the South and continue to be plagued by social and economic inequalities.
The vast majority of these low-income minorities have no secondary education, which forces them to work in areas such as food industries i.e. meat packing plants. In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports that in 2010, 48% of animal slaughter laborers were Latinos. The Latino community is, therefore, particularly at risk for contracting and spreading COVID-19: animal slaughter laborers are in close quarters to one another for long shifts with little to no Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
20 May 2014 Photograph of New Orleans from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
Ineffective municipal governance is widening the health disparity gap and creating an avenue for more people to become carriers for COVID-19. A report, led by the consulting agency Oliver Wyman, highlighted a concerning finding: communities where English is not the primary language are less likely to receive health educational materials in their native languages. While larger cities have felt the push to publish materials in multiple languages, small and rural cities have not benefited from that same push. For example, in Amarillo, Texas, where Latinos represent a third of the total population, there was not a Spanish equivalent of the COVID-19 educational material until late April.
"...meat packing facilities are already hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks because of their close working conditions, long hours, and socially disadvantaged minority workforce,"
The United States produces billions of pounds of meat every year and its citizens are among some of the largest consumers of meat on the planet. Consequently, the U.S. has a vested interest in keeping meat packing plants open and the management behind these plants will do what it takes to maintain the plants. A source (whose name and whereabouts have been omitted in order to guarantee anonymity and prevent retaliation) has described to CRXSS the callousness of such management. After several reports emerged that meat packing plants were hotspots for COVID-19 cases, production was temporarily halted in one of several meat packing plants in the Panhandle of Texas. Publicly, the management of the meat packing plant in question announced that once production resumed, steps would be taken to guarantee a safer work environment, testing would be offered at the plant, and laborers could take sick days without repercussions. However, our source (and numerous other POC employees) paints a different narrative: regardless of whether they tested positive or negative for COVID-19, laborers were obligated to go to work.
This coercion is not only reprehensible and wildly unethical - it is extremely dangerous. Again, meat packing facilities are already hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks because of their close working conditions, long hours, and socially disadvantaged minority workforce; these poor working conditions are only exacerbated by the discriminatory practices that group low-income minorities in the same neighborhoods.
Therefore, when meat packing officials choose to ignore the blatant challenges their workers face and prioritize profits over safety, negative consequences are bound to arise. Low-income minority laborers will become carriers and with their general lack of health insurance and the limited number of hospitals in small cities, they will not seek medical intervention when they are unwell. The number of sick individuals in these segregated neighborhoods will rise and secondary infections will rise throughout the cities - infecting those outside segregated neighborhoods as well as those within.
Meat packing plants are littered throughout the South, with many residing in or near small and rural cities; many of these types of cities will face similar struggles, thereby designating the South as the new epicenter of the pandemic in the United States.
The conditions that could give way to new outbreaks and a major meat shortage in the United States - redlining, health disparities, toxic work environments - are not new to this country. They have always been integral aspects of the oppression of the working class, but unless our elected officials remove their blinders and move to rectify the inequities that jeopardize the health of Latino communities, these inequities threaten to change the way of life of every American.