Attention first focused on those who sell or deliver food and the risks of contact with customers. Then, cases of Covid-19 were seen in grocers and food distributors, whose vulnerability was less appreciated until people began to die.
More recently, large outbreaks have been reported among workers in meat processing plants. A Smithfield factory in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, closed after the fall of 644 workers. At Cargill Meat Solutions in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, 130 workers were infected and a union leader died. And a JBS plant in Grand Island, the largest city in Hall County, Nebraska, has reported 588 cases in a population of around 50,000. Alarmingly, this epidemic has also spread to local health facilities and nursing homes.
A final group must now be recognized: agricultural workers, particularly migrants. Spring brings workers to harvest crops early and many have started arriving on the farms where they have been working for years.
The result could be a problem. In Singapore, which managed the world’s tightest, most well-designed and executed Covid-19 screening program, migrant workers were among those caught in a second large wave of cases, possibly due to their housing cramped and insufficient. Some dorms in Singapore have 12 to 20 workers in one room.
Migrant farm workers in the United States – the majority of whom are Latino and too often live in unsanitary and overcrowded neighborhoods – may also find themselves at the center of the next Covid-19 hotspots. If this happens, the result could be not only illness and suffering, but also contempt and anti-immigrant criticism, even if the problem – unacceptable housing for workers – remains unanswered.
Some groups have sounded the alarm, but the problem is barely registered at the national level. However, some states with large migrant worker populations are preparing. Oregon and North Dakota have begun considering appropriate measures to improve housing.
A few weeks ago, even before a peak of 100 cases at a wind farm in Grand Forks, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring in a statement suggested a response to contain Covid-19.
“Farmers are preparing for spring work and preparing to go out to their fields,” he said. “Many of these producers rely on H-2A workers (foreigners) and workers from other states to fill the employment gap. Producers who have workers from other countries or states should follow proper (containment) procedures upon arrival. “
Randy Hatzenbuhler, president of Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation in Medora, North Dakota, raised the bar: he said that any worker coming in from outside for seasonal work would be quarantined for two weeks. And he promised that, “During quarantine, these employees will receive their regular wages and have meal delivery available to them.” “
This approach can prevent a worker from infecting a community, but will not prevent spread to overcrowded housing if only one case is brought up. Take, for example, the sparsely populated Mountrail County of North Dakota with 10,545 residents. There, 33 cases of Covid-19 were diagnosed, with an infection rate of 323 per 100,000, a rate higher than that of Saint-Louis.
The source of the Mountrail cases is not known. Mountrail County adjoins the Fort Berthold Indian Reserve, and cases have also been diagnosed there.
Whatever the transmission, Mountrail County has significant agricultural land. It is unclear how many migrant workers can spend time there this season. However, according to the Environmental Working Group’s agricultural subsidy database, in 2019, 334 farms in Mountrail County received $ 6.9 million in federal agricultural subsidies, suggesting many farms with many crops to harvest. . The combination of community spread, as likely occurs in the county, with a seasonal influx of farm workers can lead to a substantial increase in Covid-19 infections.
The problem of inadequate housing for migrant workers is old and poorly resolved. In the 1970s, the Department of Justice attempted to resolve the problem, but a significant gap remains.
A report by The Pew Charitable Trusts has shown that basic sanitary conditions are often lacking. Bedbugs, clutter, and shared bathrooms make everyday life not only uncomfortable, but – with Covid-19 – potentially fatal.
Migrant farm workers are essential infrastructure workers. Their lack of safe housing is unfortunately in line with the recent failures to protect most other workers from essential infrastructure.
Preventable deaths among police, health and transportation workers and those in the food industry will continue to occur. Many of these deaths have occurred due to an unacceptable lack of protective equipment or safe working conditions, even after receiving advice from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on worker safety.
This cruel abrogation of the basic social contract should shake the many people who have the impression that the government “has the back” as they prepare to “reopen” an economy which, for the moment, given the test rates very low, should remain closed.
Any company that has proven to be unable or unwilling to protect staff from critical infrastructure certainly has no plan to reduce the risk to those who plan to return to work in states such as Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. Those hoping to resume operations soon should consider this record of indifference before deciding on their next steps.