From the pandemic to climate change, Americans are still expected to work no matter what happens.
By Anna North
For a moment in early 2020, it seemed like we might get a break from capitalism.
A novel coronavirus was sweeping the globe, and leaders and experts recommended that the US pay millions of people to stay home until the immediate crisis was over. These people wouldn’t work. They’d hunker down, take care of their families, and isolate themselves to keep everyone safe. With almost the whole economy on pause, the virus would stop spreading, and Americans could soon go back to normalcy with relatively little loss of life.
Obviously, that didn’t happen.
Instead, white-collar workers shifted over to Zoom (often with kids in the background), and everybody else was forced to keep showing up to their jobs in the face of a deadly virus. Hundreds of thousands died, countless numbers descended into depression and burnout, and a grim new standard was set: Americans keep working, even during the apocalypse.
Now it’s been nearly two years since the beginning of the pandemic — a time that has also encompassed an attempted coup, innumerable extreme weather events likely tied to climate change, and ongoing police violence against Black Americans — and we’ve been expected to show up to work through all of it. “I don’t think people are well,” says Riana Elyse Anderson, a clinical and community psychologist and professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. “We are moving along but we are certainly not well.”
For some Americans, working during the apocalypse is fatal — think of the transit workers who died from Covid-19 in 2020, or the Amazon warehouse workers killed by a tornado on December 10 in Illinois. “All disasters are workplace disasters for some people,” said Jacob Remes, a historian and the director of the Initiative for Critical Disaster Studies at New York University. For others, the effects are more of a slow burn; the chronic stress that comes with putting on a game face at work, day in and day out, as the world becomes ever more terrifying.
Of course, Americans haven’t all quietly accepted the demand that we work through the end times. Record numbers are quitting their jobs in search of higher pay and better conditions. After more than 20 months of being asked to keep showing up uncomplainingly while everything crumbles around them, people are demanding a more humane approach to work in the age of interlocking crises.
A disaster, whether it’s the pandemic or climate change or the existential threat to democracy or all of the above, “can help us to understand the ordinary structures of work differently,” Remes said. The conditions we find ourselves in today, dark as they are, are an opportunity to remake American culture around an ethic of care rather than productivity, so that we can face the next disaster together — rather than being forced to ride it out in isolated cubicles.
Since the pandemic began, workers in America have faced “compounding and continuous” crises, Anderson said. There’s the threat of the virus itself, which has taken a devastating toll on front-line workers, with line cooks, warehouse employees, and agricultural workers at especially high risk of death in 2020. The first waves of the virus also brought economic hardship in the form of job insecurity, slashed hours, and depleted savings, anxieties that fell especially hard on Black and Latinx workers who had less wealth than white ones to begin with, and who were less likely to receive federal assistance in the form of PPP loans.
As Covid-19 raged, Americans witnessed the murder of George Floyd and ongoing police violence against Black Americans, a reminder that the pandemic was not “the only threat to Black life,” as Anderson put it. At the same time, then-President Donald Trump refused to say whether he’d accept the results of the 2020 election, stoking widespread fear over the fate of American democracy. Then, when he did lose the election, his followers stormed the Capitol in an insurrection that left five people dead.
That day, a tweet asking if we were really “supposed to be working during the coup” went viral, as workers questioned whether we were still expected to be productive while the highest levels of American government appeared to be crumbling before our eyes…