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Carman: Essential workers are our heroes. It’s time to start treating them that way.

I love the howl. Every night at 8, I join my neighbors in a collective bawling at the moon to honor the essential workers in our midst who are risking their lives to care for the rest of us. 

A couple of cheeky participants light fireworks. Children holler with glee. Dogs bark. 

The urban coyotes can only wonder if the natural order of things is completely whacked.

Diane Carman

The best part of the howl is that it proves there’s still a community out there even though we’re stuck inside in our social isolation. It feels good, hopeful.

But once the public health experts determine the coronavirus is under control, we’ll have to move beyond the howl. When we jump-start the economy, we’ll have the opportunity – the moral imperative, in fact – to stop systematically abusing the essential workers who’ve kept us alive.

The governor’s office last week released data that revealed the disproportionate impact the virus has had on black and Latinx communities in the state.

“Generations of institutionalized barriers” to clean air, medical care, healthy food and so many other essential elements of good health contribute to those outcomes, said Jill Hunsaker-Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, who added, “we must bridge these inequities…”

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Ean Tafoya, co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum, noted how many black and brown people live in the Denver neighborhoods and in the hotspots around the state where clusters of COVID-19 cases are among the highest. 

“A lot of Latinos and Latinas are doing essential jobs,” he said. “They are the grocery workers, janitors, hospital workers, nurses, food processing workers, construction workers, laborers and manufacturing workers.”

They’re faced with a “devil’s choice,” Tafoya said, “living paycheck-to-paycheck and knowing that despite the danger, if they don’t go to work, they lose everything.”

But the worst part is what Hunsaker-Ryan noted – that our history of discrimination and exploitation has left them riddled with underlying conditions and vulnerable to the worst effects of the pandemic.

The Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods in Denver vividly illustrate the problem.

They are some of the oldest neighborhoods in Denver. In recent decades, they have been predominantly Latinx communities with strong social networks and a rich cultural heritage. This is despite the fact that the area was deliberately sacrificed in the 1960s when political leaders decided to carve the interstate highway system through their backyards. 

The ensuing incessant traffic pumped millions of tons of pollution into their homes every year, year after year, to spare white neighborhoods the impacts. An asphalt plant, an oil refinery and other polluting industrial operations also were located nearby and continue to churn tons of toxins into the air, while decade after decade environmental regulators have dithered.

The widespread asthma, heart disease and respiratory conditions that result from these decisions leave this neighborhood of essential workers ill-equipped to battle the novel coronavirus. 

The economic inequality is just as profound.

In normal times in Colorado, hospitals have profit margins around 20%. Insurance company executives rake in tens of millions in annual compensation along with their counterparts in the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. 

Health care has long been a gravy train – for some.

Meanwhile, average pay for registered nurses is $36.65 an hour, not enough to buy a house in much of Colorado or to put a kid through college. Licensed practical nurses, residential treatment staff members, home health aides and other health care workers earn far less, some struggling to get minimum wage and many without benefits such as health insurance and paid time off.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

The picture gets bleaker when we lift the veil on other workplaces. Agricultural workers and people in the food industry from production and distribution to the supermarket checkout counter are suddenly seen as heroes, but their pay and working conditions hardly reflect that regard.

Efforts in recent years to raise the minimum wage, guarantee paid sick time and expand access to health care for these workers have drawn widespread opposition across Colorado. Even Mayor Michael Hancock opposed the paid sick time measure on the Denver ballot in 2011.

Clearly, before the COVID-19 pandemic, these workers were invisible and widely treated as if they were disposable. Suddenly, we realize they’re essential. Go figure.

“The situation is untenable,” Tafoya said, “and all this is just a dress rehearsal for climate change.”

If there’s any upside, said Tafoya, who insists he’s an optimist, it’s that despite all the populist anti-intellectual rhetoric from the political right for so many years, Americans have come to realize just how important scientists are to our survival and our future. 

In the midst of a deadly pandemic, they are our only hope.

Even in the face of shameful right-wing ridicule and attacks, our Yoda, Dr. Anthony Fauci, remains the most trusted leader in the country as the crisis evolves.

“We need to learn from this crisis,” Tafoya said.

“Latino people want to make sure that equity and climate justice are centered in our response to all of this because we know, if we don’t do that, we’re the ones who will be on the sh– end of the stick.

“Again.”

Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.


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