Along with my work as a writer and researcher, I work part-time as a bartender in Toronto. The bar I work at is more of a neighborhood pub, and in the regular course of business I generally enjoy the interactions with the customers — it’s really not a bad gig.
But this last week, even as the WHO declared the new coronavirus a pandemic, as reported infections more than doubled in Ontario, and as senior government officials and celebrities went into isolation, customers came into the bar who were coughing uncontrollably and obviously sick.
I was furious about this, but I wasn’t exactly in any position to say anything because, as you know, the customer is always right. Of course, there is no reason to assume they were infected with the coronavirus, but then again there is no reason to assume they were not. Just by being in the bar, they we taking liberties with the health and safety of the staff and all the other customers.
As I thought about this I realized it was totally irresponsible. I also realized it is why, in due course, all the bars and restaurants in Toronto will likely need to be shut down. To help limit the spread of the virus, this should happen sooner rather than later.
What we’ve been hearing is the coronavirus can be passed on by people who are showing no symptoms at all. People who have come into direct contact with positive cases of COVID-19 are on an honour system to self-isolate at home. As the number of cases increases, and as community spread increases, essentially anyone may be carrying the virus.
Servers work in places where the door is open to anyone. We handle food and drinks. We pick up plates, cutlery, glasses, and napkins. We clean the tables and the bar. We take out the trash. We clean the bathrooms.
We do all these things in the most sanitary ways we can. I can’t speak for every establishment, but in our bar there is a good standard of cleaning and even in regular times I know that all the staff are pretty much constantly washing their hands. And in regular times there’s not much to worry about from a customer who might be sick but still decides (for whatever reason) to go to the bar.
Just in the last week everything has changed. If someone going out when they were sick was before a slight social faux-pas, now it is better characterized as somewhere in the range between utter disregard and contempt for others.
Lots of people have choices. If they encounter someone who is sick they can just go the other way. If they have a certain type of job they can work from home or even just stop working altogether. They can, if they want to, avoid other people entirely until it is clear how this outbreak will play out in Toronto and in Canada.
Servers don’t have those choices. Servers cannot maintain social distance. Servers cannot escape the disregard and contempt of that percentage of the public who put everyone at risk. And there is a whole class of people, sometimes called the precariat or the underclass, whose health and well-being is right now put at risk in this way.
Cleaners, grocery store workers, gym workers, maids and housekeepers, cooks and dishwashers, daycare workers, undocumented workers and migrants, and many many others. All the working people who are paid minimum wage or less, with no job security, with no benefits or sick days, and who are essentially held hostage by economic necessity to risk their health and the health of their families.
Over the last couple days the federal and provincial governments have been making announcements on financial help for Canadians. It has all been extremely vague, and I can understand that there are lots of moving pieces. But whereas there has been at least some clarity for middle class and working class people, it is totally unclear for the underclass.
The first concern of this for the broader society right now is the health concern. Precarious workers are going to get sick and are not going to be able to take time off. It is easy to imagine how dangerous that is.
But from the point of view of ethics this situation is simply highlighting an ongoing ethical wrong in our country, one that has not been addressed (or even acknowledged) all along.
The inequality and precariousness that exists in Canada is an epidemic on its own. Now the social epidemic is brought to light by the biological epidemic, and one reinforces and spurs on the other.
Not just government but society at large needs to step up and find/demand solutions for the underclass. And while this pandemic is an urgent and multifaceted crisis, it is also an opportunity to examine how inequality functions in Canada and find ways to fix that for good.