- Public messaging in the pandemic has said “we” need to stay at home.
- This ignores people who must report to a work site.
- The elevation of making “good” individual choices in the pandemic needs to end.
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I was watching Hulu when I first saw the ad.
“COVID-19 can spread rapidly,” an upbeat, urgent voice said. “Or we can make choices that help us stay home and stop the spread.”
The advertisement went on to encourage people to have medication delivered via the startup Capsule, to “help keep our communities safe.” It was an ad targeted to people like me, who had spent the pandemic working from home and binging hours of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
The message was clear: the right thing to do to stop the spread of COVID-19 was to stay inside. But, what about the workers who have to travel to a pharmacy, picking up the medicine, and making the deliveries? If staying home means someone else takes on the same risk, is that really safer? Or, does it just shift the risk to someone else, typically to low-income workers?
This isn’t a problem that is specific to Capsule. The assumption that “we” can make the choice to stay at home has become inescapable over the past year. It has shaped how the US has responded to the pandemic in ways that ignore, dehumanize, and hurt workers who are already among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. And it needs to stop.
Food delivery isn’t going to stop the pandemic
In January, Vox ran an article with the headline: “Still going to the grocery store? With new virus variants spreading, it’s probably time to stop.”
The article is well reported. But the headline ignores the people who are most likely to catch COVID-19 in a grocery store: the workers who cannot decide to simply stop showing up.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) said that at least 138 of its members working in grocery stores have died, and more than 31,200 grocery workers have been infected or exposed to COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the risk of a customers catching COVID-19 at grocery stores is so low that Dr. Marietta Vazquez, an infectious disease expert at Yale Pediatric Children’s Hospital, told me delivery versus in-person shopping is simply a personal choice, rather than a safety consideration. This is largely because customers spend far less time inside stores than workers, and therefore have less potential for virus exposure.
And ordering delivery does not substantially reduce the number of people in a store, because most services employ personal shoppers that are separate from store workers. Delivery can protect higher-risk individuals, but it isn’t the silver bullet to stop the spread of COVID-19 in a community.
Many workers understand they cannot simply “stay home,” and have asked for protections throughout the pandemic.
Grocery store employees began to ask for masks to wear at work more than a year ago. Many requests were originally denied, with employers citing the CDC’s guidance against masks at the time. In February, Ben Bonnema said he was fired from his job at Trader Joe’s after asking the company to improve air filtration and deploy other solutions to protect workers. As of this week, only 13 states are providing vaccine access for grocery store workers, according to UFCW.
“Every supermarket in the country must increase worker protections, enforce mask wearing in stores, and commit to disclosing when frontline workers have been infected and died,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a recent statement.
The spread of COVID-19 is not materially impacted by whether people visit grocery stores themselves or pay Instacart shoppers to do so on their behalf. The bigger problem is the lack of protections for the workers themselves.
Most personal choices aren’t actually solutions
Dr. Vazquez told me that stay-at-home orders assumed that avoiding contact with others was a possibility for entire populations. But, that is not the reality for many people.
“Similarly, recommendations on how to quarantine at home assume individuals live in homes large enough for the symptomatic individual to sleep in a separate bedroom for example and be brought food while staying in the bedroom,” Vazquez said in an email.
“I think that these guidelines, although well intended, leave those with limited financial access to resources behind,” Vazquez continued.
Zeynep Tufekci, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina known for her reliably prescient pandemic coverage, analyzed similar issues in a recent article.
“Individual responsibility certainly had a large role to play in fighting the pandemic, but many victims had little choice in what happened to them,” Tufekci wrote in The Atlantic. “By disproportionately focusing on individual choices, not only did we hide the real problem, but we failed to do more to provide safe working and living conditions for everyone.”
Tufekci writes that ineffective “hygiene theater” goes hand-in-hand with a wider theater of personal responsibility. Public messaging reinforces the belief that if an individual does everything “right” – in some cases, having others to take on the risks they avoid – it can halt the spread of COVID-19.
“There have been very few things we could do at an individual level to reduce our risk beyond wearing masks, distancing, and disinfecting. . . . No wonder there was so much focus on telling others to stay home – even though it’s not a choice available to those who cannot work remotely – and so much scolding of those who dared to socialize or enjoy a moment outdoors,” Tufekci writes.
Everyone should reduce risk in whatever way they can. But the emphasis on personal choices ignores people who do not have many options when it comes to quarantining. That makes it more difficult to advocate for solutions that can best prevent the spread of COVID-19, whether that be improving ventilation or better sick leave policies.
As vaccines become more widely available and governments roll back precautions, we cannot allow the theater of personal responsibility to dominate the national discourse. Instead, we need to demand protections for all people – those who can afford to stay home, as well as the people who are actually delivering their meals.