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On the Economy, in These Deeply Unusual Times

 

How often can one think of these times as surreal? We’re probably past that, right?

But then, every week, even odder things happen.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on the economy the past few weeks, and its many sometimes disparate parts. Partly, of course, because we’re a business, and we will in ways large and small be affected by how this plays out. But not just that. This debacle has exposed fault lines and shortfalls and issues we didn’t even know we had. Likewise, issues we had swept to the side, maybe didn’t want to think about, and now can no longer avoid. At bottom, I hope this horrible pandemic will lead us to change how we live, eat and work. Maybe even to embrace more genuine things, simpler but more real things. Wouldn’t that be something?

So here goes:

First, so many businesses have in some ways pivoted, either to maintain their share during this time or enter a new market, and it’s encouraging to see the dynamism of our system on display. Bucci’s Deli in Mahopac, for instance, now also provides some limited grocery supplies like toilet tissue and paper towels, not only acting as a vital supplier but bringing its distribution chain to bear, all while wearing proper personal protective equipment, of course. Or foodstuffs, as restaurant supplier Ace Endico is doing in bringing its products to the residential market, as opposed to the trade. Think of all those meals we used to eat outside of the home, that now we aren’t.

And, of course, the drug stores and liquor stores that now do business curbside. Who knew you could buy wine at your local shop without actually looking at 10 bottles? And pretty efficiently, too.

But other things are more troubling. Much more so.

In our yearning for the old days, we sometimes gloss over, zip by, things that now seem archaic but really were part of how things got done. Every community of any size used to have a butcher shop. My little town in Minnesota, all of 5,000 people, had two butcher shops for a time. With meat lockers, where one could store frozen meat. Imagine.

If my father had a particularly good steer out of the 200 to 300 we had in the feedlot, especially if he didn’t have a truckload ready for the meatpacker, he would truck this one animal to the butcher and it would be our supply for some months. He might sell a half or a quarter of the carcass to someone else in town, his insurance agent or one of the doctors. Likewise, it didn’t matter if a steer was underweight or overweight, the butcher shop would slaughter it, where the meatpacker wouldn’t want it.

And so these small enterprises butchered whole animals and broke them down, all of 5 miles from the cattle lot. And aged them — hung the carcass for a while to improve the taste and texture. My father was big on aging. Farm-to-table before we even knew the concept, methinks.

Today, our food chain is far more fragile that most of us realized. I have come to believe that we will see some types of meat protein run short within weeks. Not just limits on purchases; it simply won’t be there. The shelves will be empty. The situation in the meatpacking plants is dire. Here is the crux of the issue: The workers do not feel safe returning to work. Many of them — one-third to one-half of the workforce at some plants — have tested positive for COVID-19. They have watched colleagues, parents and children die. They do not believe, many don’t, the companies and the federal government have their interests at heart.

Here’s why: Because the companies and the government don’t, actually, have their best interests at the forefront. Meatpacking has always, always, been about shoving more animals down the production line as fast as possible. But rather than confront this worker safety issue in the age of the coronavirus, companies have come only belatedly to the idea of installing safety measures, of stretching out the line where possible to provide social distance, installing screens between worker stations, of allowing people who may be ill to stay home with pay. Meanwhile, the federal government’s contribution has been to issue a directive declaring meatpackers to be “critical infrastructure” and to protect them from liability during the COVID-19 time.

Again, that will not solve the issue. It won’t reopen the closed plants, it won’t lead to workers breaking down hogs into ribs and roasts and pork bellies. These workers are folks who are willing to do some of the toughest work in America for $12 to $16 an hour. The question for them isn’t, just, whether they are deemed essential. It’s whether they can stay alive, with hundreds of coronavirus cases in some plants.

Even worse, some governors and some in the administration have taken to blaming the workers for their “lifestyle.” You see, large percentages of the workforce in almost all packing plants nationwide are immigrants, from Vietnam and Laos decades ago, more recently from Somalia, from countries in Central and South America, and from Eastern Europe. And many of them, to get ahead, to live the American Dream faster, will share housing with their extended family or with two or more families under one roof.

And so governors, including South Dakota’s Gov. Kristi Noem, home to the Smithfield plant I’ve written about previously, blamed the workers for the spread, as did Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who referenced the “home and social” conditions of the workers.

That criticism was especially striking for Noem, who ran her family’s ranch for some years and, presumably, has some idea of how cattle get from the pasture to the grocery aisle.

Meanwhile, due to these plant closures, pork and beef production is off by tens of thousands of animals every single day. Every. Single. Day. Many farmers, those who raise hogs and chickens especially, have had to euthanize animals. There is simply nowhere for them to go. Most of these farmers, in a normal week, are selling a hundred, 500, maybe 2,000 head at a time. Now, those are meat deliveries that will never happen at the grocery stores across Putnam County and our nation. As of the end of April, at least 16 packing plants were closed entirely due to the coronavirus striking so many workers, according to USA Today. Collectively, this is millions of pounds of steak, ribs, roasts and bacon. Likewise, but also heartwrenching for farmers, dairy producers have had to dump milk.

And then we come to small business. I think it’s clear, now, that many of our small businesses were operating far closer to the edge than we realized — perhaps closer to the edge than even their owners realized. Some will not make it back. But many others have pivoted, and quickly, such as by offering delivery or curbside pickup for everything from drugstore items to flowers to puzzles. As well, takeout restaurant meals.

I also think that we, all of us, have benefited for a long time from things being, relatively, cheap. Simply, our food is going to have to cost more, both for the home and at restaurants. Likewise, if it costs more to make personal protective equipment in this country instead of China, so be it. What a vulnerability, that most of the PPE supply chain goes through one country. We have a relationship with China, yes, but I don’t think we could call it a friendship.

And, workers, many of whom we now applaud as essential, but still pay as if they are not. We should — we need to — pay them more. And health care. We have millions who don’t have health insurance, and millions more whose insurance provides ‘barely there’ coverage. In 2020, in America, it’s crazy to have a system that encourages sick people to go to work and provides no coverage if they need a critical test or important care. Like right now, perhaps?

As I write this on Sunday, some 78,932 people have died in the United States from this vicious disease — about 30,000 more than the entirety of battle deaths in the Vietnam War. In the space of a couple of months. Our death count is more than twice the fatalities of the next two countries combined, the United Kingdom with 31,930 and Italy, with 30,560. Remember when we quaintly thought we could avoid being like Italy?

We ought to be angry that so many have died. Some of us are protesting for the right to go to the mall, to get a haircut, to supposedly “reopen” our states. We’re protesting for the wrong things.

Until next week.

Douglas Cunningham is editor of the Courier and the Putnam County News and Recorder. Reach him at 845-265-2468 or at editor@pcnr.com.

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