Staff Columnist

Whose life matters more? A human or a hog?

Employees near the warehouse office at the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, on Thursday, Ap
Employees near the warehouse office at the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, on Thursday, April 16, 2020. Two employees have died after a coronavirus outbreak at the pork processing plant. The plant has been shut down since April 6. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

I’m old enough to remember last week at Gov. Reynold’s daily news conference, when officials declared that Iowa was successfully flattening the curve on new cases of COVID-19.

That moment was eerily similar to President George W. Bush on May 1, 2003 standing on an aircraft carrier in front of a banner that declared “Mission Accomplished,” announcing the end to major combat operations in Iraq. The majority of the deaths in that operation occurred after the speech. And Iowa will be no different. This weekend, Iowa saw a huge spike in COVD-19 cases with outbreaks at long-term care facilities and in food processing plants. The majority of our casualties will occur after state officials announced the curve was flattening.

As more tests are administered across the state, the reality that has been with us all along will finally be plotted on a chart. This highly contagious virus is spreading quickly because our state leaders have done little to act proactively. Instead, our governor sends testing kits only after outbreaks occur. And companies themselves institute protective measures only after cases have been identified, when it’s too late. On Tuesday, Gov. Reynolds announced a new public private partnership that would speed up testing at the plants. But testing doesn’t give workers paid time off. Testing doesn’t proper social distancing and hygiene measures are being taken at the plants. Tests just show who can’t come to work. They are meaningless without employee protections.

It’s not just Iowa. Across the nation, Nebraska, Georgia, Florida, and South Dakota and are engaging in a similar craven Scroogian calculation that values essential workers as expendable.

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It’s not just Iowa. Across the nation, Nebraska, Georgia, Florida, and South Dakota and are engaging in a similar craven Scroogian calculation that values essential workers as expendable.

Across the Midwest, food processing plants are the sites of large-scale outbreaks. Including, National Beef in Tama and at Tyson plants in Columbus Junction and Perry and in Waterloo.

Local lawmakers have filed a complaint with OSHA citing a lack of safety precautions at Tyson. The letter cities anonymous workers, who say the plant failed to effectively enforce social distancing measures or communicate with non-English speaking employees. In a news release from the Iowa Democrats, Sen. Kevin Kinney of rural Oxford, a grain and livestock farmer, said, “I see problems in two places: the livestock agriculture community and the meat processing workforce. I’m hearing from workers that they feel completely expendable right now, particularly immigrant workers ...”

Food processing plants have a history of treating their workers as an expendable commodity. In 2016, an NPR report warned of employees at food processing plants being injured on the job due to the hectic and impossible pace of the food processing lines and supervisors who refuse to allow breaks forcing workers to defecate themselves on the job.

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These are the companies Gov. Reynolds is trusting with the lives of workers who are often immigrants and resettled refugees. In response to questions about shutting down the Tyson plant, Reynolds warned thousands of hogs might have to be slaughtered if the plant shuts down. No word about the human lives that will be lost.

Marshalltown Mayor Joel T.S. Greer, voiced serious concern for the hogs, when he told the Des Moines Register, “The whole world needs them for protein and for food. We’re the biggest farming state in the country for pigs. What are the pig farmers going to do if they can’t get the pigs processed? Bury them? I really am proud of what we do here, locally, to keep the whole supply chain going.”

On Monday Gov. Reynolds echoed this concern, for the pigs, “We should all be working on finding solutions to making sure that we are doing infectious control policies that we’re making sure that the workforce is protected, and most importantly, that we’re keeping that food supply chain moving.”

That “most importantly” is doing a lot of work there, weighing the economic cost over the lives of workers. More worried about the hogs that might go to waste than the lives of workers that already are.

lyz.lenz@thegazette.com; (319) 450-0547

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