Previously novel phrases such as “social-distancing,” “quarantine,” and “flattening the curve” have been completely normalized by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the daily vocabulary of the average American has expanded to include such terms, many of these words and phrases were once mostly thrown around in a medical setting and deemed as too abstract for the general public.
One term that has recently lost some significance to the general public yet helps ground the reality of the pandemic is none other than “essential workers.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, essential workers encompass a broad range of industries and services and fulfill critical functions that help the U.S. stay afloat. Celebrated and honored at the beginning of the pandemic, essential workers were praised for their efforts in fighting the virus and providing other essential services, but as California grimly approaches its one year anniversary of stay-at-home orders and a complete upheaval of society, the alarm that the healthcare industry raised a little under a year ago over personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages has faded and the exhaustion many essential workers has been largely forgotten or ignored. Despite the public’s increasing apathy and desire to disconnect from the reality of the pandemic, essential workers continue to show up to work to keep the world running, risking their health and the lives of their loved ones.
For essential workers in the APIDA community, the pandemic has only underscored the negligence and inaction of the federal government in prioritizing the health and well-being of essential workers. “I worked with nurses on my team who say they have PTSD from working in the emergency room, and it feels like there’s no one really talking about that,” said UCLA alumnus Lorenz Trias.
Trias, who is currently working as an administrative assistant on a COVID-19 response team, mainly serves people experiencing homelessness and travels to homeless shelters to provide disease and infection control as well as administer COVID-19 tests.
“It was really nice to just hear both hear [the homeless’] experiences and also help them through this potentially traumatic time,” he added. Aside from his positive experiences since working on this COVID response team, Trias stressed the suffering that he witnessed first-hand with not only people who have been infected with COVID-19 but also healthcare workers who worked tirelessly to ease the suffering of victims of the virus.
While people slowly start to let their guard down on rules and regulations or even blatantly ignore them, the simple truth is that nurses, doctors, and emergency responders have been overworked behind hospital doors and layers of personal protective equipment, or PPE. For some Americans, what cannot be seen by the naked eye has been labeled as unreliable and false, and thus mask-wearing and public health recommendations have been viewed with suspicion and in some cases, completely rejected.
Jimmy Zhou, a UCLA alumnus and a first responder emergency medical technician, said he didn’t think it would be necessary to have conversations about essential workers or first responders if the pandemic was under control. Zhou also expressed frustration over the pay that first responders in Los Angeles County receive.
“The fact that we’re paid minimum wage as EMTs shows the prioritization of essential workers in general,” he said. Zhou works six days a week to pay for rent and other expenses, but first responders in EMS and the fire department don’t qualify for the $5 hazard pay for grocery store and pharmacy employees recently enacted by Los Angeles County. The exclusion of first responders from this is a huge blow to the morale of an entire sector of essential workers who put their lives at risk every day.
Both Trias and Zhou emphasized their frustrations when seeing people without masks or not adhering to social distancing. “That’s been the hardest part‒working these long days, long hours to prevent people from getting COVID. And then it’s kind of being spit back out in my face,” Trias said.
Another industry that has been particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic is the restaurant industry. According to Statista, a website that provides market and consumer data on more than 80,000 topics, the percentage of seated diners at American restaurants has dropped by a little under 66% since February 24, 2020. With states and counties continuously closing and re-opening indoor and outdoor dining and one in four unemployed workers having previously worked in the food and beverage industry, restaurant workers have had an especially rough experience in the pandemic.
Kevin Liu, a second-year neuroscience major and a cashier and server at Kazunori, a Japanese restaurant in Westwood, said one of the most challenging aspects of his job was dealing with customers who felt a sense of entitlement when interacting with staff at Kazunori. “I think a lot of customers don’t realize that a young person, like around our age working in Westwood is most likely a student, and they treat us like we are bottom scum sometimes,” he said.
Although Liu interacts with hundreds of customers almost daily, he said he still felt guilty considering himself an essential worker because he felt that medical workers were putting themselves at higher risk, but there were also many discrepancies in being labeled as an essential worker.
Beyond the labor force, COVID-19 has also profoundly impacted students training to be essential workers, namely nursing students at UCLA. With clinical health courses among the few in-person classes currently offered at UCLA, some nursing students have been part of the few students allowed back on campus and in hospitals as part of their education and training.
Vani Fatimah, a fourth-year nursing student, expressed gratitude for being able to return to in-person clinical rotations but said she was still concerned about the risks of being exposed to COVID-19 and the changes COVID-19 had brought on the nursing program.
“As a student in particular, the reduction of clinical hours in the beginning of the year has also been worrying with less hands-on practice of skills,” she said.
While the hospital floor nursing students are assigned clinical rotations to those that typically don’t have COVID positive patients, there is still anxiety and fear of the unknown when entering the hospital, she added.
Jeannine Tjandara, a third-year nursing student, was grateful for the support the nursing faculty had provided for nursing students. “I think it’s huge to know that it’s not just academically that they care for us, but they also care for us personally,” she said.
Every day, these five APIDA students and alumni put themselves at risk to serve their local communities, usually without praise or recognition. While the pandemic hasn’t shown any signs of ending anytime soon, that doesn’t indicate that essential workers should be pushed to the shadows, their service forgotten and unnoticed. “I hope that we are able to come together as a society, as a country, and be able to respect other people, and be a lot less selfish about what we want to do,” said Zhou.