The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that staying home when you are sick and quarantining after exposure to the virus greatly reduces the potential of spreading the virus to others. In addition, studies have shown this strategy is effective in reducing the spread of other viruses — infections of which are currently overwhelming healthcare facilities around the country. Recently, we have begun to embrace a new normal — something which has greatly differed by state. Unfortunately, many across the country and even here at the University have begun to let their guards down as COVID-19 cases have been drastically reduced as a result of increased vaccinations. Reasons for such behaviors, which risk increasing infections, may stem from fear of missing work or school — although the pandemic has shown such a decision can have deadly consequences. Here in Charlottesville, it is on the University to ensure students are not impeded when they choose to prioritize their health and the health of others. Further, as a society, we must begin to prioritize health and wellness over work and profit.
The pandemic has made individuals more cognizant of how to protect themselves and others from illness, but our capitalistic society has yet to catch up with this societal shift. In particular, the pandemic has highlighted many examples of businesses decisively choosing profit over their worker’s health. This includes disparities between the treatment of white collar and blue collar workers. While many white collar professionals had the choice or at least the ability to conduct remote work, blue collar professions did not. As a result, these workers — many of whom were deemed essential — were at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 with little to no protections or social safety nets like hazard pay. In practice, capitalism has negatively affected poor and unskilled laborers at higher rates than wealthier individuals. Without regulations that protect all workers, even white collar workers will suffer the consequences of the system. This trend is evidenced by the recent push by many companies for their workers to return to in-person jobs. This requirement — coupled with insufficient pre-pandemic sick leave — means many workers have no choice but to quit their jobs.
It is unacceptable that a worker would have to choose between their wages and prioritizing their health by staying home when ill. This injustice exposes the current societal structure which prioritizes keeping major companies open over instituting workers protections. Similarly, many businesses refused to match wages with the increase in profits, opened prematurely or raised the prices of goods and services at the height of a recession. Many large companies were able to remain in business during and after the peak of the pandemic not because of these immoralities, but because they had sufficient wealth to fall back on. Compared to large companies, small businesses were hit harder as many of these workers’ sole source of income originated from their businesses. Stimulus checks and other benefits were often insufficient in bridging the gap in their needs.
Some politicians have chosen to politicize measures that are necessary to protect workers and limit the spread of this deadly virus. However, others have actually offered promising solutions in response to this pandemic and future crises, including universal basic income, medicare for all, increased funding for social welfare programs and reforms of worker protections legislation. Regardless of the differences and merits of these solutions, the goal is similar — to provide social safety nets for people in the face of emergencies. Such proposals would ensure that no one would have to choose between their health and their job in the event of a future pandemic or similar crisis. Until such social reform is enacted, we must continue to trust the science which shows that staying home, wearing a mask, vaccinating oneself and taking preventative measures are effective in greatly reducing infections both of COVID-19 and of other common respiratory infections.
The University should also do its part to protect students and workers in the event of a future crisis post-pandemic. Though administration acknowledged the pandemic was unprecedented, its response to the pandemic still created more stress for workers and students in an already uncertain situation. This included measures from sending students and workers home and moving classes online, to attempting a hybrid in-person and online system. In order to protect students should a similar crisis arise, the University should enforce a more accommodating attendance policy, increase mental health services and access and prepare students for a post-pandemic job market. In addition, the University should adjust tuition costs when resorting to online education so less students have to postpone their education for financial reasons, as well as accommodate students who choose to take gap-years. For workers, the University should implement stronger worker protections such as hazard pay, offer guaranteed wages and increase existing education benefits for workers.
Ideally our post-pandemic society will become more accommodating of people’s health challenges and become more conscientious of barriers to success. However, despite the horrors of the pandemic, one can find hope in the social revolutions that have sparked awareness of disparities among differing demographics. With enough traction, these movements will carry our society into a new age where we will collectively decide to choose people over profit.
Yssis Cano-Santiago is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.