Some pandemic lessons are too important to leave behind

The bread aisle was empty at a Des Moines grocer on March 17. (Photo by Jim Obradovich for Iowa Capital Dispatch)

This coronavirus pandemic is far from over, even as we slowly start to reclaim parts of our former lives.  We are more than ready to forget about some experiences: shaggy hair, face masks, empty store shelves, seeing loved ones only through a video screen. We’re tired of the inconveniences, the disappointments. We’re sad for those who have encountered true hardships: layoffs, illness or the unthinkable loss of a loved one.

But there are some aspects of this pandemic that we should never forget, no matter how much we’d like to try.

One of those is the true cost of our independence. Most of us were already aware of what we owe first responders. Police, firefighters, doctors and nurses are portrayed as heroes in TV dramas. They are on the front lines whenever catastrophe strikes and this one is no exception.

But by now, we can or should understand how dependent we are on people who rarely receive any recognition. They’re hospital janitors, grocery clerks, meatpacking workers, child care providers, nursing home staff, truck drivers, delivery service and postal workers, garbage collectors, farmers, restaurant cooks, mechanics and utility operators.  These are just a few of the “essential workers” who have allowed most of us to stay safe in our homes while they keep us and our families fed, warm and relatively comfortable.

Going back to our regular lives means we will rely on even more people to get back to risky work:  Hairdressers and barbers, manicurists and massage therapists, retail store workers and restaurant waiters, to name just a few.

The realization of how much we depend on these essential workers comes with responsibility. The first one is to behave responsibly, including maintaining social distancing measures and wearing masks in public, to help keep them safe.

The second, and equally important, responsibility is to recognize that we have long been taking advantage of the fact that many of these workers receive low wages, no health insurance and no sick leave.  That has been particularly alarming at meatpacking plants, where outbreaks threatened major disruptions in our food production system. We can no longer look the other way knowing that the people who put bacon on our table typically have to choose between working sick and losing a paycheck.

This pandemic showed us the fragility of our health-care system nationwide but also the inadequacy of many of our long-term care facilities at protecting our loved ones.  Gov. Kim Reynolds has often repeated that outbreaks are growing at Iowa’s long-term care facilities despite our “best efforts.”  That should tell us our best efforts are unacceptable. As of Sunday, more than 1,380 long-term care workers and residents had been infected. Long-term care residents have died in disproportionate numbers.

Before this pandemic, Iowa had slashed nursing home oversight and some of the facilities with outbreaks had histories of poor infection control practices.  The Trump administration was in the process of rolling back regulations, including some dealing with infection control, before the pandemic.  Now, patient-safety regulations remain suspended even as the state is reopening businesses like tanning salons and tattoo parlors.  One national advocate called the situation “terrifying.”

We need serious oversight and accountability for long-term care facilities and, again, we need to treat those who care for these vulnerable residents as essential not only in high responsibility and expectations but also in pay and benefits.

There are many other lessons to learn from this pandemic about our national priorities, our education system’s lack of preparedness for distance learning, our economy’s inability to withstand a health crisis. We now know how well our environment would be doing without us. We should know enough about hand-washing and self-isolation to virtually eliminate the next cold and flu season.

We’ve learned that none of us is immune. What will we do with this knowledge? Will we simply stagger back to our old ways and try to pretend none of this ever happened? Or will we seek to recover in a way that makes us ─ all of us ─ stronger?