Demand for tobacco was climbing in Virginia during the 1660s. But the Great Plague and other catastrophes were decreasing the number of laborers who were migrating from Europe. It would have been difficult for colonists to meet the demand if not for forced labor from enslaved Africans, the first of whom had arrived four decades prior. Between the summer of 1619 and Virginia’s first slave law in 1661, tobacco blossomed into a cash crop that made planters quite wealthy—especially once they leaned into the abhorrence of enslavement and no longer provided those who worked their fields with even scant rights.
But the colonists didn’t need to produce tobacco. They could have chosen to grow corn, a less labor-intensive crop, but decided against it because tobacco was more profitable. Instead, to advance themselves economically despite the shortage of workers, they opted to risk the health of enslaved Africans.
Such disregard for the lives of others became the backbone of American capitalism and its legacy is playing out today, in plain sight, as economic incentives collide with people’s well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Trump administration’s priorities have been clear from the beginning. On March 22, President Donald Trump tweeted that “the cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.” The next morning, during an appearance on America’s Newsroom, his top economic adviser echoed the sentiment, with an emphasis on suffering: “The president is right. The cure can’t be worse than the disease, and we’re gonna have to make some difficult trade-offs.”
Later that day, during a White House news conference, Trump said “America will again and soon be open for business—very soon.” That evening, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested that older folks would be willing to die if that meant saving the economy for younger generations.* A former CEO for Goldman Sachs and the president’s former National Economic Council chairman agreed.
Three days later, on March 26, the U.S. became the world leader in confirmed coronavirus infections. Yet Trump and other Republicans remained fixated on the economy, driven by the president’s fears that the rising unemployment rates would affect his shot at being reelected in November.
Avoiding an economic crash that was poised to eliminate entire industries became a greater federal priority than containing the pandemic. Senate Republicans, House Democrats, and the Trump administration were able to agree in late March on the CARES Act, a multitrillion-dollar aid package that included direct payments, an expansion of unemployment benefits, and loans for struggling businesses, albeit with a number of corporate-friendly loopholes. Economic relief comes with positive health consequences of its own; poverty is a health disparity in and of itself. But there was no corresponding federal drive to provide comprehensive testing and tracing to fight the pandemic. And many essential workers—who are most vulnerable to contagion and who exist on the brink of poverty in good times—were left out of the bailouts. Since they had to keep working, they did not benefit from the boost in unemployment funds. Less than a third of essential laborers were given hazard pay, and due to a rollback in OSHA safety provisions, millions were unable to receive federal workplace protections.
The conditions faced by America’s essential workers are abhorrent. Grocery store workers were spat on by patrons. Instacart shoppers were lured into taking orders by big tips that were lessened significantly after delivery. A Texas bus driver was beaten after asking a passenger to wear a mask. Jason Hargrove, a bus driver in Detroit, died from COVID-19 in April after a woman coughed on him. Institutional measures were equally ugly. Whole Foods’ CEO suggested workers donate their sick time to other employees in order to survive economic strains caused by the pandemic. Workers went on strike to fight for adequate cleaning supplies and PPE.
In America’s meatpacking plants, which Trump deemed an essential service in late April to avoid a national meat shortage, conditions are particularly awful. Physical distancing is impossible for workers who have to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in order to complete their jobs on the assembly line. And, if they did need to leave work sick, there was no guarantee their job would be there once they got better. One worker told ProPublica that, after a colleague with a heavy cough was told she couldn’t come back to work, he never informed his supervisors once he began feeling ill.
Around 43 percent of America’s essential workers are people of color and they are the majority in the food, agriculture, industrial, commercial, residential facilities, and service industries. People of color—Black and Indigenous folks in particular—also have higher COVID-19 mortality rates than their white peers.
The experiences of America’s essential workers should have served as a demonstration of why states should not reopen. Instead, as spring inched into summer, states began to relax their restrictions on other workplaces and activities. Coronavirus infection rates shot up nationwide. And Trump’s administration continued to insist that reopening was safe to do. During a press briefing on May 4, Trump tried to blame China for the mounting death toll while simultaneously claiming that the country was ready to loosen physical distancing restrictions—even though by then 65,000 people had died.
Elected officials, in their response to the pandemic, could have chosen to preserve human life. But, just as their forefathers chose tobacco over corn, the current administration—along with state and local governments—chose to exploit those who have no choice but to do whatever it takes to prevent their families from succumbing into poverty. Americans are told this is a nation where everyone is created equal, even while the country’s economic system is maintained by exploiting and disregarding some people’s lives. Government response to the virus has forced those with already limited options to make impossible choices.
And at least 144,873 Americans have died from COVID-19 because of it.
Correction, July 25, 2020: This piece originally misstated that Dan Patrick is the governor of Texas. He is the lieutenant governor.