The meat industry is bound and determined to change nothing about its horrid workplace safety practices, no matter how many workers die. It will act only at the force of the state and we know that the state has no interest in keeping workers alive if it costs profit. Especially the workers of color laboring in these plants.
The Smithfield Foods plant in Tar Heel, N.C., is one of the world’s largest pork processing facilities, employing about 4,500 people and slaughtering roughly 30,000 pigs a day at its peak.
And like more than 100 other meat plants across the United States, the facility has seen a substantial number of coronavirus cases. But the exact number of workers in Tar Heel who have tested positive is anyone’s guess.
Smithfield would not provide any data when asked about the number of illnesses at the plant. Neither would state or local health officials.
“There has been a stigma associated with the virus,” said Teresa Duncan, the director of the health department in Bladen County, where the plant is located. “So we’re trying to protect privacy.”
Oh yes, it is definitely the privacy of workers that concerns North Carolina county health officials….
Along with nursing homes and prisons, meatpacking facilities have proven to be places where the virus spreads rapidly. But as dozens of plants that closed because of outbreaks begin reopening, meat companies’ reluctance to disclose detailed case counts makes it difficult to tell whether the contagion is contained or new cases are emerging even with new safety measures in place. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were nearly 5,000 meatpacking workers infected with the virus as of the end of last month. But the nonprofit group Food & Environment Reporting Network estimated last week that the number has climbed to more than 17,000. There have been 66 meatpacking deaths, the group said.
And the outbreaks may be even more extensive.
For weeks, local officials received conflicting signals from state leaders and meatpacking companies about how much information to release, according to internal emails from government health agencies obtained through public records requests by Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation and provided to The New York Times. The mixed messages left many workers and their communities in the dark about the extent of the spread in parts of Iowa, Nebraska and Colorado.
The emails also reveal the deference some county officials have shown toward the giant meatpacking companies and how little power they have in pushing the companies to stem outbreaks.
“Bad news spreads way faster than the truth,” said a county health official in Colorado of an outbreak at a Cargill plant, according to notes from a conference call last month. “At this point, we are not doing anything to cast them in a bad light. Will not throw them to the Press.”
These counties are so poor that it’s almost hard to blame the county health officials. If a given factory was to close, it would devastate the local economy. The industry chooses poor remote regions to place these factories for precisely this reason. That’s why the pressure has to come from the state and federal government, but lol.
As COVID-19 raised its ugly head in the rural areas of Southwest borderlands this winter, I recalled the conditions among farmworkers described by Jeff Banister, now director of the Southwest Center at the University of Arizona, after he had spent days out in the heat with migratory farmworkers at the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
“By day, field hands toiled in the region’s extreme humidity and heat. At night, they slept under roofs of cardboard. Blankets covered bare ground and bathroom facilities were makeshift pit latrines,” wrote Banister.
The field conditions he described now may as well be considered the perfect “petri dishes” for the colonization and spread of COVID-19.
Near the border crossing of San Luis del Rio Colorado, Sonora, I have personally witnessed as many as 50 busloads of Mexican day laborers heading for the searing heat of lettuce and onion fields in Yuma County, Arizona. Many of the 10,000 Mexican citizens who pass into the U.S. there to harvest crops are young women and girls who speak the native language of the Trique, getting by in the U.S. with only a rudimentary knowledge of agrarian Spanish or English.
It is unlikely that these Trique women—who tend to speak just enough Spanish to take orders from Mexican crew bosses, but speak Oto-Manguean languages at home—are being given clear, audible, culturally appropriate instructions about the spacing and health precautions that might help them avoid being infected with COVID-19 while they are in the fields, or back at home.
Tragically, the Latinx and Native Americans farmworkers, cowboys, and sheep herders who harvest food and herd animals in the desert Southwest have been harder hit by COVID-19 than any group in the Sunbelt other than nursing home elders. As of today, the Navajo Nation has surpassed New York and New Jersey for the highest per-capita coronavirus infection rate in the U.S.
Once again, if it was white people dying at high rates from COVID-19, the federal response would be massively different. But as soon as it wasn’t Trump’s friends dying and instead it was black and brown people, the Republican Party simply stopped caring entirely.