Covid and Equity

Author: Dr. Chris Keil; Professor of Environmental Science at Wheaton College

I teach environmental science. I love the outdoors – the prairies, mountains, deserts, streams, oceans, and all the other biomes – but these are not the environments I get to visit in my professional practice. My area of scholarship is the industrial environment. I study chemical releases in manufacturing settings, how those chemicals reach workers and community members, and the health risks that are created. Field work takes me to factories, wastewater treatment plants, landfills, and smokestacks. I’ve been from steel mills to mobile device factories, from quarries to print shops. 

The pandemic brought into focus disparities that have been growing for decades. Western society operates more and more with knowledge-, information- and communication-based products. The division between blue-collar and white-collar workers has not just widened. The division has become a chasm. Blue-collar workers have become increasingly invisible and voiceless. 

It is easy to forget that, at a fundamental level, the incorporeal products in the economic foreground rely on physical, tangible tools that are created by the manual labor of a worker. The electronic devices of our “post-industrial” or “information” economy are the product of forged metals, plastics production, molding, forming, assembly, energy, and a host of other “real” materials and processes. The women and men doing this work often labor for low wages and poor benefits, and they work in environments that threaten their health. 

When the pandemic hit, “stay-at-home orders” and other mandates shut-down large sectors of the economy.  Many “post-industrial” workers spoke up about how nice it was that, even though the shift to home was a hassle, they could continue their work. That privilege is not available to those making the physical instruments that enable working at home. Layoffs occurred and incomes ceased. Those whose operations were considered “vital” had to work, but they faced the threat of disease as well as the anxiety that arises when working in uncertain circumstances. Service sector workers are on the same side of the gap as blue-collar workers. Though perhaps more visible, they generally have even less security than traditional labor. 

The pandemic has accentuated the growing chasm between the economic “haves” and “have-nots”. And longstanding racial divisions both mirror and compound these economic differences. Christians cannot turn away from these realities, because the God of the Bible is intimately concerned with the care of those who are economically and socially vulnerable. The Church and Christian institutions need to lead the way in striving for justice. May this prayer used in the Compline office become a reality for those who are part of the Kingdom of God:

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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