The Weekly Issue/El Semanario Advisory Board
In the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Jesus preaches of many things, one of which ends with the parable of laborers in the vineyard. When asked why the last laborers are paid first, even though they worked least, He says, “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen” (20:16). What shall come to pass today in the U.S. with the Coronavirus vaccines, in preparation now to be distributed? Will “Essential Workers,” among the first to keep our country and economy going during these dark days, be the last to get the vaccine because of who and what they are?
The structural inequalities facing essential workers in the U.S. are many, varied, and extreme. According to an article in The Los Angeles Times, “The pandemic continues to take a disproportionate toll on Americans of color, who have been hospitalized at rates roughly four times higher than non-Hispanic whites since the start of the epidemic” (Nov. 16, 2020). The same article states, “Hispanic or Latino people have been hospitalized at the highest rate, 4.2 times the rate of whites,” nearly identical to the Native American rate of 4.1 times, and African Americans at 3.9 times, according to figures from the Center for Disease Control—a name which belies that it has not been controlling the disease. These are populations that predominate in what has been euphemistically called “Essential Workers,” sadly a working synonym for unsafe and low-paid employment.
“The big question now is, who gets the vaccine? How is it going to be distributed, how will it be distributed, and will it be fair?”
Who are these essential workers, the indispensable laborers, the fundamental employees? Among them are the farmworkers and meat packing-plant workers, without whom we do not eat; the grocery store clerks and those who keep fruits and vegetables and shelves stocked, without whom we do not shop; the restaurant cooks and cashiers and other front-line workers, without whom we can’t provide convenient meals to our families; and social and mental health workers who have seen us through this pandemic. Sadly, and in many cases tragically, these workers are not provided with benefits many employees take for granted, including health insurance, life insurance, sick-time off, or time off to care for a loved one taken ill by this pandemic. Such benefits are the purview of workers in the upper echelon, who can work remotely, away from frequent contact with those who might transmit Covid-19.
We, the Advisory Board for The Weekly Issue/El Semanario, are greatly concerned how the forthcoming vaccines against the Coronavirus will be distributed. Even before the vaccines have been approved for distribution, extreme jockeying is taking place, much of it to ensure that the privileged, powerful, and politically connected will, as usual, be “the first” in line. What will be the contemporary Gospel parable of the “Essential Workers” in the vineyard, who worked first, longest, hardest, and last?
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, long laboring to prevent unchecked COVID-19 transmission, has asked, “The big question now is, who gets the vaccine? How is it going to be distributed, how will it be distributed, and will it be fair?” (The New York Times, Nov. 15, video). He expressed grave concern that “The Trump administration is designing the distribution plan, and their plan basically has private health care companies administer the vaccine.” As he and we ask, where would this plan leave essential workers—Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, and other marginalized groups—who do not have health insurance, can’t afford a visit to a “private health care” provider, and are not members of the privileged social milieu for whom such providers are de rigueur?
Our Advisory Board for The Weekly Issue/El Semanario asserts that front-line health care workers—doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel treating the sick—must be at the front of the line to receive the vaccine. However, we maintain that immediately following, Latino, African American, Native American, and other marginalized groups of workers be served as, finally, truly essential. In addition, they should receive hazard pay to manifest and reflect their vital contributions to our society.
Immigrants, whether documented or not, must also be provided the vaccine, as they number greatly among the front-line, essential workers. An often-overlooked aspect of their labor is that they pay a variety of taxes—sales, payroll, and property, among others—but receive little if any reciprocal services. As the article, “Publicly funded vaccines in private hands,” reveals, both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines have been paid for or benefited from government taxpayer funds. That point is “especially relevant for the Moderna vaccine because federal funding of the company’s effort approaches $1 billion, and because the government owns at least one patent crucial for the product’s manufacture” (Los Angeles Times, Nov. 16, 2020). Likewise, Pfizer “has received a $1.95-billion government contract to manufacture 100 million doses of its product if it’s proved effective.”
We call upon the political leaders from Colorado to ensure that our essential workers are equitably compensated for their assistance and sacrifice during these extreme times the pandemic has wrought upon us and them. Newly-elected Senator John Hickenlooper, whom we championed, can begin his Senate service by ensuring these workers are provided for with vaccines, as should Senator Michael Bennet, our House of Representatives members, and Governor Jared Polis.
State political and social leaders must begin immediate outreach to these essential workers in preparation for the upcoming distribution of the vaccine. As has been often stated, a vaccine does nothing; it is the vaccination—the shot in the arm—that works. The workers of whom we speak, and their families, must be contacted through an educational campaign and outreach to ensure their vaccinations will be realized. The Trump administration, through vilifying and invidious repudiation of our community, has ensured that many essential workers no longer trust the government, vaccine or not. We must build back this trust, which we are sure incoming President-elect Biden’s administration will achieve.
The mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual costs of what we are facing is as incalculable as the uniqueness of this pandemic. There are spillover effects caused by the pandemic that the Federal Government has yet to address. The collective mental health, namely the healing needs of the essential workers and their families, needs to be addressed. There are distinctive issues directly related to the pandemic. One example is the psychological ramifications of innocent children separated from their families who are suffering from loss, grief, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. For those who have succumbed to death because of coronavirus, their families are left helpless, unable to perform the last rituals and ceremonies for their loved ones, who transition into another existence. There is no vaccine for the psychological destruction that has occurred and will continue until we are victorious in the war against this invisible enemy.
The parable of laborers in the vineyard can be interpreted variously, but surely, those who are first to labor, serve, and sacrifice should be among the first to receive deliverance. The COVID-19 affliction is so severe that these lessons apply today. The essential workers, at last, must be among the first to receive their reward.
Members of The Weekly Issue/El Semanario Advisory Board: Ramón Del Castillo, Ph.D.; Ray Ayón, retired Denver Police Detective; Steve Del Castillo, Ph.D.; and Luis Torres, Ph.D.
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