“But if someone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses to help – how can the love of God dwell in a person like that?” (1 John 3:17 CEB) The scripture keeps nagging my heart as COVID-19 continues to challenge all of us, but especially the most vulnerable in our midst.
Last Friday was May 1. Observed in European cultures since the late 19thcentury as an ancient festival of spring and a public holiday for working class people, May Day is also called International Workers Day where dancing around a maypole and crowning a May Queen is common. The U.S. celebrates a similar Labor Day holiday on the first Monday in September, a time when we honor all who labor on our behalf.
May Day, however, has another meaning. “Mayday” is an international distress call that is sent out when someone is in serious danger, whether on a ship or plane. A radio operator sends out the mayday call three times in a row to indicate that it is a real emergency.
Are May Day and mayday related? Not really. Mayday comes from the imperative form of the French word, m’aidez, which means “to help.” Yet May 1, 2020 reminds us that we are in the midst of a “mayday” pandemic, as workers around the world struggle to contain COVID-19.
On May Day, our Governor Kim Reynolds relaxed restrictions around restaurants, fitness centers, malls, and houses of worship in 77 of Iowa’s 99 counties. But on the same day, May 1, Iowa had a single day record of 739 new COVID-19 cases, including 8 deaths. As of May 1, there have been 7,884 total cases and 170 deaths. Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! The curve has not begun to flatten yet in Iowa. I and other Iowa religious leaders issued a statement last week strongly encouraging our congregations to continue to refrain from in-house worship at this time.
Of biggest concern in Iowa is outbreaks of COVID-19 in nursing homes, jails, and meat-packing plants and the disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases among our ethnic population. U.S. Census Bureau Statistics released on April 14 showed that African Americans made up 4% of Iowa’s population but they accounted for 8.7% of Iowa’s known infections. Latinos and Hispanics made up 6% of the state population but represented 16.4% of the confirmed cases. Mexican, Central American, Burmese, and Congolese immigrant workers have also made Iowa their home.
The disparity in infection rates is due to many of our meatpacking and food-processing employees coming from other countries. According to Joe Henry, political director of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa, “People need to realize Latinos and immigrants are doing the heavy lifting right now. We’re feeding the country, and we’re not being treated with any type of safety that would be provided to health care workers and others.”
Meat-processing plants, which include beef, pork, and poultry, are critical to Iowa’s economy, with Iowa ranking first in pork production in the United States. Thousands of farmers are dependent on the meat-processing plants for their livelihoods, and therein lies the agonizing dilemma of pigs, people, and profits. In order to supply the nation with pork, the meat-packing plants should be operating at full capacity, but with COVID-19, many of the plants are not providing the appropriate level of safety. Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!
A disproportionate number of employees have been infected with COVID-19 because they work in close quarters, there have not always been partitions between workers, the lines move too fast, and there hasn’t always been enough protective equipment. In addition, the plants have not been regularly sanitized, and there is concern about not enough testing. According to a USA Today investigation, the meatpacking industry has been notorious for poor working conditions, even before the coronavirus pandemic. Federal watchdog reports have found that meat and poultry employees have among the highest illness rates of all manufacturing employees and are less likely to report injuries and illness than any other type of worker. Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!
In the midst of rising numbers of infections, an executive order was issued last Tuesday to reopen the meat-packing plants. Citing the Defense Production Act, President Trump said that “it is important that processors of beef, pork, and poultry (‘meat and poultry’) in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans.” According to the executive order, meat-packing companies are exempt from lawsuits.
In addition, after first indicating that furloughed employees refusing to go back to work in reopened plants because of fear for their safety might lose their unemployment benefits, Governor Reynolds moderated the requirements. Her revised statement said that exempt from losing unemployment benefits would be those who have been infected by COVID-19, have household members who have been infected, are in higher-risk categories of contracting the disease, or have higher-risk household members who have been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine.
United Food and Commercial Workers International Union President Marc Perrone called for workers to have protective equipment, daily testing at the plants, and social distancing to be in place. He said, “While we share the concern over the food supply, today’s executive order to force meatpacking plants to stay open must put the safety of our country’s meatpacking workers first… Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers.” Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!
Balancing the need to supply food with concerns around worker safety is complex and gut-wrenching. While President Trump’s executive order gives hope to farmers who agonize over the back-up of pigs on their farms, meat-packing workers and their families are still fearful. The Waterloo Tyson Plant, located in Black Hawk County, Iowa, with 2,800 workers, remains closed. Black Hawk County had its first coronavirus case on March 18. Since then there have been more than 1,400 cases in the county, with 90% related to the Tyson plant, (primary or secondary exposure) according to Black Hawk Public County Health Director Nafissa Cisse. Making worker safety a priority will go a long way toward assuring profitability for both farmers and companies.
How can the love of God dwell in us during this time of COVID-19? I am grateful for the outpouring of love and generosity toward all those who have been adversely affected by COVID-19. “But if someone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses to help – how can the love of God dwell in a person like that?”
Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! How can we embody the love of God in light of deep disappointment and intense grief of graduations that will not take place; people who are furloughed and may not return to work; weddings and funerals that take place without the presence of many who wish to be present; and the novelty of time away that has gone sour?
Who will make phone calls to church friends and neighbors, just to check up? Who will make box lunches to be handed out to those whose resources have run dry and who have no place to turn for help? Who will help those learning how to access their church service by live-streaming? Who will contribute money to food banks? Who will organize car caravans to drive by the homes of people having birthdays and show them some love?
Who will show support for our farmers, who raise animals and grow other foods that are vital for our economy? Who will pray for workers in our meat-packing plants as they face the fear of infection? Who will pray for our health care professionals who place themselves in jeopardy every day by caring for those with COVID?
Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! How will the love of God dwell in you this week?