I'm Surprised We Haven't Seen More Pandemic Scapegoating

But it's happening in an Oklahoma town.

packinghouse workers trimming pigs, chicago, 1945 these laborers helped chicago live up to its reputation as 'hog butcher for the world', a phrase coined by carl sandburg in his poem 'chicago' photo by stephen deutchchicago history museumgetty images
Chicago History MuseumGetty Images

Tuesday’s Hot Spot Spotlight falls on Guymon, Oklahoma, the county seat of Texas County, where approximately 11,000 Oklahomans live, and where there are at the moment 709 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The outbreak seems to center on a pork processing plant on the northeast side of town, this one owned by Seaboard Foods, where 440 active cases have been found among the employees. It is the town’s primary employer; the mayor of Guymon works there. This has spawned some unfortunate local opinions. From the :

As COVID-19 spread across the area, workers at Seaboard Foods pork-processing plant complained of laboring in cramped conditions amid unenforced screening protocols, improper cleaning procedures and the threat of being replaced if they called in sick. On Main Street, some shop owners complained about immigrants working at Seaboard Foods, saying they live in crowded housing, and do not follow social distancing and hygiene guidelines. “It’s not the plant,” one merchant said. “It’s the people at the plant.”

(This is not an attitude limited to Oklahoma. You may recall that, during the Wisconsin state supreme court’s debate on whether or not to hold its in-person primary, chief justice Patience Roggensack dismissed an outbreak in Brown County in that state by blaming meatpacking workers at a local plant, and not what she called the “regular folks” in Brown County.)

Quite honestly, given the demographics of meat-packing employees, the casual attitude toward worker safety that is the hallmark of that industry, and both before and during the pandemic, I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of this kind of scapegoating. (Which is not to say that to use the pandemic for their own purposes. Monsters gonna monster.) So it’s more than a little ironic that the physician most directly involved in handling the outbreak in Guymon is an immigrant.

Martin Bautista, chief of staff at Memorial Hospital of Texas County, came to America from the Philippines with his wife during the AIDS pandemic. He studied gastroenterology. She studied pulmonary medicine. Some weeks during their residencies and internships in New York during the early 1990s, the couple worked more than 100 hours. “We didn’t see the sunlight,” Bautista said. “That’s what my wife and I continue to remember to this day. AIDS opened America up to us and COVID threatened to end our lives. It’s part of the game.”
Bautista estimated his clinic has diagnosed about 250 COVID-19 patients. “A majority of the employees of the meat packing plant are minorities,” he said. “A lot who were sick got over it and went back to work. It’s hard work. We as immigrants acknowledge that these people are dying to get back on the line. They put their lives on the line, versus a lot of people in our community who stand in the unemployment line.”

Courage comes in strange forms in times like these.

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