The Power and Peril of Being Deemed “Essential”

In the wake of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (i.e., severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2), we’ve learned new meanings associated with being deemed “essential.”

From the very start of the global pandemic, “essential workers” necessarily included first responders such as healthcare workers needed to diagnosis and treat COVID-19 patients. Additionally, however, other workers were deemed “essential” and expected to continue to work, despite the fact that doing so exposed them to risks. These personnel included those working at grocery stores, farm workers, delivery workers, transit personnel, as well as custodial workers in hospitals, shops, and other essential businesses.

Though deemed essential, these workers were often underpaid, even as they assumed heightened coronavirus exposure risks. Their temporal “essentiality” undoubtedly put them peril at of a greater risk of contracting COVID-19. Again, many of these workers are generally among the lowest paid; yet, “stay at home” orders made the work that they carry out critical in ways that we’d overlooked or actively failed to acknowledge (and reward) before the onset of pandemic. Indeed, despite years of lobbying and activism, minimum wage in the U.S. has been stagnant for decades.

At the same time that society-at-large was dealing with the pandemic, schools, colleges and universities were also pivoting to new means of engagement and education. Increasingly tuition-driven, colleges, and universities immediately began strategizing about how to keep classes going, and tuition money flowing.

Essential to the work of colleges and universities at this moment, personnel versed in “virtual” or on-line learning, and central to digital platforms, contributed to rapid pivots of instruction on-line. Many of the changes and innovations—and certainly not the speed at which they occurred—likely would not have been deemed possible prior to COVID-19—certainly not without protracted debate and planning. Yet, the recognition that failure to maintain access to classes would halt tuition income led to rapid action, and relaxed barriers about who could and should lead change in these spaces.

As access to class was deemed “essential” for the survival of institutions, rapid pivots and digital innovations ensued. Thus, while peril and risk came to those deemed “essential workers” in society-at-large due to exposure risks and job insecurity, “essential service” in colleges and universities that was tied to financial survival could be seen as leading to promise in regards to opportunities for digital innovations and stimulating the pace of change.

In the midst of responses to coronavirus pandemic, racial unrest resurged in the U.S. [although for many Black Americans it was already a present & persistent daily reality] due to events including those with Black birder Christian Cooper and involving the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police.

Universities responded, as did a great number of business entities, with statements professing solidarity with Black Americans and public written and verbal declarations that “Black Lives Matter.” Yet, despite these statements, real actions and strategies to mitigate or eliminate anti-Black racism have been much slower to emerge and less definitive in nature, despite the long-known racial disparities in academia.

These changes promised in the wake of responding to anti-Black racism have limped along or failed to materialize altogether—as if they are not essential!

Because I’ve seen what can happen when an issue or challenge is seen as essential, indeed is seen as critical to the very survival of academic institutions due to the tragic reality of COVID-19, I wonder what would happen if ensuring justice and equity in terms of access and success were truly seen in a similar light.

What rapidity and lengths of change would we see, if the leaders of our institutions saw equity and justice for students, staff, faculty—indeed all in these spaces—as essential to their very existence and ongoing survival.

No matter how many statements are made to communicate that equity is essential in these spaces, true promise in transforming institutions into spaces that prioritize, actively pursue, and hold themselves accountable for pursuing and maintaining equity and justice will only come when we deem it ESSENTIAL!

If you have comments on this post, as always find me on Twitter—@BerondaM.