Earlier this month, I contracted the flu — not COVID-19 but the regular, everyday, miserable but run of the mill flu that has been floating around my community.
I developed a severe case which turned into bacterial pneumonia; although otherwise fit and healthy, I have asthma, which makes me especially susceptible to respiratory illnesses. I spent Valentine’s Day flat on my back, wheezing and struggling to breathe while the antibiotics worked their magic.
Say what you will about azithromycin; it sure does kill bacteria good.
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I work as a server, and I almost certainly contracted the flu from my workplace; prior to becoming sick, I served multiple customers who told me they were ill, which means exposure to their breath, used plates, napkins and cutlery, and surfaces they have touched. Moreover, several of my coworkers were ill with the same symptoms on the last shift I worked before becoming sick.
If you are worried about infection from COVID-19, you should be less concerned about hoarding masks and hand sanitizer (which you really shouldn’t be doing) and more concerned about the ways that poverty, a lack of access to health care, and general class inequality in North America could contribute to spreading it.
In Canada, where I live, servers are usually paid at or slightly below provincial minimum wage, and in the USA it’s often less than the already abysmal minimum wage. Most food service workers — servers, like myself, as well as cooks, bussers, and a vast variety of other folks working for an hourly wage — do not get paid sick days, which means taking time off even when you are pretty much dying costs you money.
Money you probably don’t have, which means you come into work sick.
For me, this was the first time in my 15-year career in the service industry that I have ever called in sick for multiple, back to back shifts. Tips are variable, but I estimate my three days off cost me about $350, plus $100 worth of medication. That doesn’t include the cost of my emergency room visit, which an uninsured American would also have to pay for.
I’m really lucky that I work with good people and have a kind boss, who helped me cover my shifts; in many restaurants, the culture is not so forgiving, and calling in sick with anything less than a brain aneurysm is a sign of weakness. You’ve “screwed everyone over” by not coming in and making someone else work a double or else work shorthanded. In many other restaurants I’ve worked in, you may find yourself missing shifts you would usually work on the next schedule — a “punishment” for the selfish act of allowing a virus to infiltrate your body and replicate within your cells, you lazy prick.
The main reason I was able to take a couple sick days this time around — regardless of the fact that I had to, since I couldn’t actually get out of bed — was that I have another job where I’m self-employed. In short, I had some extra money and could afford to not go to work and sweat and sneeze and cough all over people, food, and objects.
Not only does this mean I didn’t infect other people — COVID-19, incidentally, is primarily spread through respiratory droplets in the air, and by person to person contact — but I recovered faster because I got the medical care and rest I needed, which means I returned to work more quickly. Better for me, better for my boss, better for the health of everyone.
By contrast, as I recently tweeted about, this isn’t the first time I’ve had pneumonia; in 2013, I had walking pneumonia for two weeks, during which I worked the majority of the time handling food in close proximity to customers. I didn’t do that because I’m a selfish jerk unaware or unconcerned about the health of others, I did so because I wouldn’t make my rent if I took time off and because I was working in a place where I was afraid of what would happen if I called in.
Not only was I sick much longer in that case — and therefore capable of infecting others for a longer period of time — it took me months to fully recover, which had further economic impacts for me. I would have been a better worker, infected fewer people, and been less of a strain on the health system had someone just given me a goddamn paid sick day; it would have been cheaper and better for literally everyone in my community.
In 2017, 130 people were sickened by an outbreak of norovirus — a highly contagious gastrointestinal illness — which was directly linked to Chipotle’s management policies around sick workers. It’s not just about the policy, though; even if workers had been “allowed” to call in sick and supported by management to do so, they’re going to come into work if missing that shift means no gas in their car, or their kid doesn’t get lunch tomorrow, or it’s ramen for dinner every single day for the next week.
When you economically punish people for getting sick, more people are going to get sick.
All signs point to COVID-19 being a genuine pandemic that we should all be concerned about and thinking about — which means we need to care not only for ourselves, but for others. If you care about your health, care about how the people around you live and are treated in their everyday lives.
Viruses don’t care how much money their host makes, but how much money their host makes, and how we treat working-class people when they get sick, may impact how many opportunities COVID-19 has to spread.