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On the VERGE

COVID-19, climate and the front line

Employee Strikes
Protestors hold signs advocating raising the minimum wage at during a rally in Los Angeles on April 15, 2015.

On Friday, an unprecedented coalition of workers from companies including Amazon, Instacart, FedEx, Target, Walmart and Whole Foods refused to show up or walked out on the job across the United States.

Part of the broader People’s Bailout movement, the demonstration took place in conjunction with May Day and International Workers’ Day to demand that federal, state and local governments provide urgent relief to frontline workers and communities in the short term while creating an inclusive recovery plan for the long term.

To say that I’m a huge proponent of seizing this moment to ensure a just transition to a clean economy would be an understatement. Still, I’m finding myself feeling a mix of concern, curiosity and fear.

It got me wondering: Is the promise and potential for an inclusive transition out of the pandemic being hitched to a bandwagon of federal stimulus that we can pretty much guarantee will fall short? If so, it will exacerbate the problems, if only by delaying or denying aid to those most in need.

This is a pivotal moment for corporate leaders as much as it is for political ones: to recognize frontline workers as "essential" and also to invest in them. Indeed, the health and resilience of your company’s workforce, and the broader communities you serve, are inextricably linked with the health and resilience of your business and the economy overall. Wall Street is beginning to get this. Look for major investment firms increasingly factoring pandemic preparedness and worker well-being into their ESG calculations.

Root causes

Of the numerous systemic failures the pandemic has laid bare, perhaps the most immoral are the interrelated crises of wealth inequality, racism and environmental degradation.

First, to wrap our heads around the mindblowing scale of wealth inequality in the United States, I urge you to scroll through this cool interactive visualization. It shows that the 400 richest Americans own about $3 trillion — more than the combined wealth of 60 percent of all Americans and more than all black families combined.

It also shows that with 3 percent of that money, we could test every American for the coronavirus and eradicate malaria. With just under 6 percent, we could lift every American out of poverty. With 8 percent, we could provide clean drinking water and toilet access to every human on Earth. You’ll have to scroll through the tool for the grand finale.

This is a pivotal moment for corporate leaders as much as it is for political ones: to recognize frontline workers as essential and also to invest in them.
When it comes to racial equity and COVID-19, the data points are similarly stark. The coronavirus is spreading at alarmingly high rates through low-income communities, mostly of color, and infecting and killing black people at disproportionately high rates across the United States.

Low-income communities and communities of color are much more likely to live and work in industry-polluted "sacrifice zones," with less access to nutritious food, proper health care and work-from-home options — prime conditions for a viral pandemic to take its toll. When you consider that 10 percent more black workers than white workers are employed in "essential" roles — keeping stores open and deliveries coming, among other things — the compounding inequities come into focus.

How climate change changes the game

Then there’s the ultimate compounding factor of climate change — and along with it the increased likelihood that the most vulnerable will be on the front lines, in every sense.

Cities and states across the country are bracing themselves for another season of record-breaking, climate-exacerbated natural disasters. A looming flood season in Michigan is forcing state officials and aid agencies to reconsider flood recovery efforts, given that the pandemic threatens to turn shelters into virus hotspots. Similar concerns are rising across Louisiana, where Mississippi River water levels have been hovering around flood stage and posing serious risk to the largely black communities who occupy its heavily industrialized banks.

Furthermore, a recent report from the University of California, Berkeley and nonprofit EcoAdapt reveals just how critical it is that resilience measures intended to help communities adapt to flooding and other climate impacts must be done right. Unless balanced with measures that promote affordable housing and food and water security, for example, they risk displacing many of the very communities being hit the hardest in the first place.

Here’s an irony: Those most at risk from pandemics and natural disasters are often the ones most needed to help when disasters strike: city workers; hospital orderlies; retail clerks; waste haulers; and on and on. How can we possibly be resilient if they aren’t?

In a piece about the "green gig economy," author Peter Dasilva points out how a majority of California’s deadliest wildfires in 2018 were fought by 2,000 prison inmates who earned just $1 a day. As Dasilva put it, "Now more than ever, it’s time for a frank discussion about what essential workers deserve in return for the invaluable work they do."

The employees at Amazon, Instacart, FedEx, Target, Walmart and Whole Foods — and maybe your company, too — would heartily agree.

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