Things have escalated quickly with the coronavirus pandemic, and it seems the pace of events is outstripping our ability to follow them. At the same time, things are grinding to a halt as local lockdowns expand into restrictions on national and global mobility and social distancing means many people are spending a lot of time at home. Those who can work from home are being encouraged to do so by employers; others are being laid off or furloughed, often without the benefit of paid leave and with the added stress of not knowing how they will pay their bills with no paycheck coming in. Still others remain at work, heightening their risk of exposure to coronavirus and leaving them to wonder if they themselves will get sick, or if they will pass it on to others. I’ll come back to this group shortly.
In the meantime, I spent a good chunk of the weekend and today adjusting my courses at the university as we, following the “best practice” that quickly emerged within higher education over the last two weeks, move to get our in-person classes somehow online following a brief shutdown so that we may complete the semester on time. I have received no emails from students about the university’s pivot or my own classes following multiple emails sent out by me and by the university, save a couple about a makeup exam that I had to adjust and students simply confirming that they received the info. This is, in fact, the longest I have gone without an email from a student since taking on the position of undergraduate program chair and academic advisor for my department in summer 2018. As for my courses, I am not in the frame of mind to learn all the detailed nuances of Blackboard or Zoom while a two year old tears through the house, nor do I think my students need to hear and see me in some low-quality recordings thrown together at the last minute or a livestream that will almost certainly experience technical glitches. Simple is better – slides to accompany assigned readings, and a basic, two-question take-home exam to end the term. I had successfully resisted slides all semester, and coronavirus has pulled me back into the weeds by forcing PowerPoint on me. On top of this, we received emails from senior administration today, which is only day one of the university’s three-day cancellation of classes to give us “time” to adjusts our schedules, indicating that the university is now going to essential services only on campus (i.e., stay home unless your job is essential to the basic physical functioning of the university) and that maybe we all consider giving students an opt-out for final exams and papers. This came a few hours after I had sent my students revised course plans. So there’s probably going to be some moral suasion to just cancel exams. And maybe that’s the right thing to do. There are a lot of unknown unknowns at this point, but if we’re going to pull the plug on the semester, we should just do it.
Indeed we should pull the plug on a lot of things given the current situation. Evictions, for example. In the absence of a firm coordinated response, you get a haphazard patchwork of official responses, some at cross-purposes, some half-informed, and some simply stupid. Perhaps this is to be expected in a crisis. But it does not put one’s mind at ease, whether you are an Uber driver or a hedge fund manager. Personally, I have a lot more sympathy for the former than for the latter, but that’s me. I’d be down with a general strike if I thought it would be possible to plan and execute such a thing, but thirty-plus years of neoliberal rollback and gutting of the labor movement means such a move is, at the moment, just a pipe dream, one longshot possible outcome among many. But when you see the US Federal Reserve inject hundreds of millions of dollars in short-term loans into the financial system in the blink of an eye and without real debate, only to stabilize stocks for less than an hour on their downward trajectory, you maybe start to realize that what’s lacking in solving problems such as clean water, health care access, renewable energy, and crippling debt is not the resources but the political will. But that may come soon enough as this global pandemic threatens to pull all things to the center with frightening centripetal urgency.
Now, as I sit here and play with the color scheme of my PowerPoint slides and fantasize about general strikes and massive wealth taxes, there are those who must remain at work, and we must really acknowledge their labor in this moment. Much of the labor performed in the global economy is invisible or barely visible, skilled but underpaid, and undertaken simply to move things or provide services that speed up the whole process of capitalist value creation and realization. There are also of course the crucial and, especially at times like this, dangerous jobs undertaken by nurses, doctors, and other health care professionals and attendants. If the US-Canada border does fully close at some point soon (and I imagine it will), I expect there will be exemptions for truck drivers and health care workers. I live at the border here in Windsor-Detroit, where thousands of trucks carrying essential goods between the two countries pass over a single chokepoint bridge every day. More than 2000 Canadian registered nurses cross the border here to work in the Detroit metro region as well. Any closure of the border to them would create an instant crisis in Detroit-area hospitals.
But what of service workers in retail? During the summer before, the winter break of, and summer after my first year at university, I worked at a grocery store in Louisville. Most of my time was spent bagging groceries, but I also counted many hours wrangling and returning carts from the strip mall parking lot, and because I was over 18 and could handle beer sales, I occasionally filled in on the cash register for the 16-year-olds with whom I sometimes worked. As this was the mid-1990s, I made minimum wage at US$4.25/hour for usually 20 hours or so per week. I played a lot of Tetris at the time, so I was, humbly, excellent at bagging groceries. This is the kind of job that has largely disappeared with the expansion of self-checkout and growth of superstores with multiple lines where cashiers are expected to do more than ring things up and handle money. In late December 1995, a big snow was predicted for Louisville (“big” in local terms meaning something like maybe 6 to 8 inches of snow) and the grocery store was absolutely bonkers. Lines that stretched to the back of the store, customers buying two carts full of food, every cart in the store scattered across an increasingly snowy and treacherous parking lot, and me bagging at the speed of light. It was chaos barely contained by the squat functional box that was the local grocery store, and it was exhausting.
So as I watched the other day on the local CBC as the line at the local superstore stretched back from the cash registers through the frozen section and back around to the dairy section and almost to the meat counter, my heart went out to all the grocery store workers on shift, ringing up enormous packages of toilet paper and carts full of canned goods and other essentials. A Kentucky snowstorm is nothing compared to a global pandemic – that snow is inevitably going to melt in 2 to 6 days, whereas this pandemic will take weeks and possibly months to curb. As local authorities close bars, restaurants, and schools and national governments start shutting borders while grocery stores and pharmacies remain open, these workers are on the front line of exposure to coronavirus with every customer that brings their cart through. So power and love to all the grocery store workers heading to handle panic buying, stock shelves that will quickly empty again, and stand on your feet for hours on end. Don’t let yourselves be replaced by touchscreens (which, by the way, are FILTHY), and thanks for your work.