The US isn’t alone in grappling with COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants.
Angela Merkel on Wednesday described incoming reports from the German meat industry as “terrible”, and said action “must be taken” to address the situation.
The problem is centered on a Westfleisch slaughterhouse in Coesfeld, where more than 250 workers have contracted the virus.
The timing leaves something to be desired, that’s for sure. Germany is taking tentative steps to ease lockdown protocols and is generally seen as having among the best track records among advanced economies when it comes to containing the virus.
The outbreak in Coesfeld is apparently concentrated among migrant workers from Eastern Europe. That, in turn, shines a spotlight on the plight of those workers, including subpar living conditions and crowded transportation arrangements.
“If one person is infected then basically everybody else that sits on the bus or lives in the shared houses is infected”, Green Party representative Anne-Monika Spallek told the Associated Press, which notes that Spallek “has campaigned against the meat industry’s practice of outsourcing much of its back-breaking work to migrants working under precarious conditions”.
In many ways, the story is similar to that told by some workers in the US. One Westfleisch worker who spoke to the press for the piece linked above described a jail-like lockdown situation outside of Coesfeld. The man (who wouldn’t give his last name for fear of reprisal) said the subcontractor still wants rent payments for shared living arrangements despite ambiguity around whether wages will be paid to those who can’t work due to infection.
He and those with whom he shares housing arrangements are banned from local grocery stores and are quite literally living in a cage. “Standing behind a metal fence erected to stop workers from leaving their shared house about 15 minutes’ drive from Coesfeld, [the worker] and others inside were waiting Tuesday for the results of the COVID-19 tests they had taken four days earlier”, AP writes, describing the pitiable situation.
And it’s not just the Westfleisch facility. “A coronavirus outbreak was uncovered at a third meatpacking plant in Germany after at least 22 employees in the western German city of Bochum were found to be infected with the deadly virus”, Deutsche Welle writes, adding that “at least 109 cases of coronavirus were previously detected at a plant in the state of Schleswig-Holstein”.
In a separate piece, DW describes the conditions for migrant workers laboring for subcontractors in Germany as “modern slavery”. The man who spoke to AP said he currently feels like “a lion in a cage”.
This is a multi-faceted story with implications that go far beyond the coronavirus. The industry is beset with concerns about squalid working conditions for vulnerable demographic groups, something which needs to be addressed irrespective of any epidemic.
But the narrow read-through is that communities in and around meatpacking facilities are vulnerable to outbreaks, and that’s true in the US as well. Consider the following passages from a piece dated May 5 from the non-profit Texas Tribune:
Despite an explosion of new coronavirus cases in the Texas Panhandle tied to local meatpacking plants, Gov. Greg Abbott indicated Tuesday that he will not reimpose stricter stay-at-home rules for Amarillo and surrounding communities, relying instead on “surge response teams” to deal with growing outbreaks.
After announcing plans to reopen more businesses in the state, Abbott said teams made up of health officials, emergency response workers and the National Guard would deal with “flare-ups,” including those connected to meatpacking plants, by helping facilitate testing, ensuring sanitation at such facilities and assessing the transportation used by plants to shuttle their workers.
“There is a challenge in the Panhandle because of either a or several meatpacking plants up there,” Abbott said during a press conference at the Capitol. “There is a need for a surge response team to go in there to provide all the resources that are needed to get that area under containment.”
Again, this underscores the inherently perilous nature of reopening plans globally, as conditions across different businesses and sectors are more conducive to the spread of the virus than others. That vulnerability becomes a liability for the surrounding population, and thereby for everyone.
Meanwhile, new USDA estimates show annual pork and beef output in the US will fall for the first time in at least five years.
Despite Donald Trump’s best efforts to ensure that meatpacking plants remain open during the epidemic to avert shortages and bare supermarket shelves, prices continue to rise.
In fact, the latest data from the USDA shows wholesale beef has now more than doubled since February.
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