Let’s Not Blame the Victims

May 8, 2020

It's not helpful to say that "congregate living" is the reason meat workers are getting sick.

Meat and poultry plants have seen the most COVID-19 cases of any food processing facilities, with more than 5,000 cases and 20 deaths. It’s tragic, and it was, to a certain degree, inevitable, because those workers have to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to keep up acceptable line speeds.

Perhaps it was also inevitable that they would be blamed for bringing the problem on themselves.

One of the biggest outbreaks was at the Smithfield Foods pork processing facility in Sioux Falls, S.D., which quickly became the epicenter for COVID in South Dakota. The state’s governor, in an interview with Fox News on April 13, pointed the finger at the disease victims, saying that 99% (her number) of the infections occurred “because a lot of these folks who work at this plant live in the same community, the same buildings, sometimes in the same apartments.” Smithfield picked up the trope shortly after, with a spokesperson telling BuzzFeed News, in reference to the “large immigrant population” in the plant’s workforce: “Living circumstances in certain cultures are different than they are with your traditional American family.”

Now Alex Azar, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, has gotten into the act. In an April 28 conference call with lawmakers, Azar said, according to Politico, that COVID infections arose because of the “home and social” aspects of meat workers’ lives.

“He was essentially turning it around, blaming the victim and implying that their lifestyle was the problem,” Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.) told Politico. Azar allegedly went on to say that law enforcement might have to be sent into the “home environments” of these employees to enforce social distancing rules. After Politico published the story, an HHS spokesperson reiterated that “many workers at certain remote and rural meatpacking facilities have living conditions that involve multifamily and congregate living, which have been conducive to rapid spread of the disease.”

This, of course, raises the obvious question: Lots of people who work in lots of workplaces have multifamily or multigenerational living arrangements. Why aren’t any of those workplaces COVID hotspots?

The COVID situation in meat and poultry plants is terrible for all concerned, and may well leave the industry with a black eye. Absurd efforts to deflect the blame aren’t going to help.