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Will Food Workers Get Priority for the Vaccine?

Dec. 30, 2020
Food industry workers need to be prioritized for the COVID vaccine – but that’s not enough.

The progress in developing vaccines for COVID-19 means that we have a great chance this year of turning the corner on the pandemic. Problem is, everyone wants to be the first around that corner.

No matter how many resources are brought to bear on vaccine production, it won’t be enough to treat the whole world right away. There’s going to have to be some rationing in the early rounds, and the inevitable jockeying to get close to the head of the vaccine line has already begun. Age and health will be major deciding factors, of course. So will location; immunizing people who live in hot spots will help suppress the spread.

And, of course, another major factor will be occupation. That’s where a lot of the jockeying comes in. Practically everyone agrees that doctors, nurses and other health care workers should be first; the question is who should be next.

Since late November, I’ve been getting emails from various food industry groups about the importance of having their workers get vaccinated as early as possible. Typical is a letter from three meat trade organizations to the governors of all 50 states: “[W]e respectfully request that, as you plan for the distribution of the vaccine, meatpacking workers, USDA inspectors and livestock producers be given high priority to receive vaccinations.”

I have absolutely no doubt that food industry workers deserve the highest possible priority for COVID vaccinations. They unquestionably perform a vital service that has to be done indoors, often in close quarters. Proof that they need protection lies in the tragic totals to date: According to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, as of early December, about 75,000 food manufacturing workers have contracted COVID-19, and at least 339 have died. (The meat and poultry sector accounts for about two-thirds and three-quarters of those totals, respectively.)

But what is the “highest possible priority”? Should it be higher than, say, public transit workers? Grocery store workers? Restaurant employees? Home health care aides? How about workers in factories that, say, make protective gear – or even process vaccines?

It’s hard to say. All of those people, just like food factory employees, have to put themselves at risk by working indoors with large numbers of others. They all do so to produce things or perform services that our economy, our society – our country – can’t live without.

Plus, they all have another thing in common: They all belong to a class that doesn’t often get prioritized for anything.

As Atul Gawande, a surgeon who is part of President-Elect Biden administration’s transitional planning team for the pandemic, pointed out to the New Yorker (where he is a contributing writer): “We’ve never put those people first in line.” Whether working-class people do in fact get prioritized, he says, will be nothing less than a test of our national character.

I’ll add this: Whenever food industry workers get the vaccine, what happens immediately afterward will be a test of the industry’s character.

Right now it’s relatively easy for food companies to stand in solidarity with their workers by advocating to get them vaccinated. Let’s hope that, once they get the vaccine, that’s not where the concern stops.

To use a crude metaphor, it would be tragic if the industry treated the COVID vaccine the way some livestock raisers treat antibiotics: as carte blanche for neglect. Pigs, cattle and other animals often get preemptively dosed with antibiotics to ward off infections that might come from keeping them in crowded, unsanitary conditions. One hopes that the industry will not view its human workers the same way.

There will be a couple of ways to test if that’s true. The first will be to see if companies are in too big of a hurry to dismantle some of the pandemic measures they’ve put in place, such as extra sanitation, protective gear and barriers. The pandemic won’t end in an instant, and neither should protective measures.

The second thing to look for will be a general improvement in relations between industry and workers. Will anything be done long-term about the low pay (about 15% below the average manufacturing wage), high rates of injury and other issues?

The industry did a great job talking up its workers during the pandemic. Once it’s over, it’ll be time to walk the talk.

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