Meat industry and coronavirus! Why are meat workers at high risk of coronvirus infection worldwide?

From the USA to Brazil to Germany, coronavirus seems to hit hard the workers in the meat industry. What is the reason for it? Do we need to rethink our current food system?

The timeline of meat industry workers and coronavirus pandemic

Around 25 March 2020, the city of South Dakota in the USA was preparing to go into lockdown when a worker at a pork processing plant in the city of Sioux Falls (with a population of around 181,000) tested positive for COVID-19. The company Smithfield confirmed the case but continued operations as usual. And in three weeks, the plant became the largest COVID-19 hotspot in the USA.

South Dakota meat processing factory [Source: ABC7 News]
The administrators found out that more than 50% of the city’s cases could be easily traced to the plant. 644 out of its 3700 employees were infected. But this association of meat workers and coronavirus did not stop there. Meat factories in Mississippi, Washington, Texas,  and Nebraska, also reported a high number of such cases. By 22 May 2020, more than 17k workers in the meat industry in the USA had coronavirus positivity. There were 66 deaths. These workers also infected their families and caused a rapid spread.

The reason for the high cases in the meat industry

Beef, port, and poultry farms reported large numbers of COVID-19 cases. Though the cities went into lockdown, meat workers were not on leave. Their services were in the essential category and almost all of them reported to work.

These workers get a pay of $ 15 an hour. They are not eligible for unemployment benefits if they quit. And there is evidence to reveal that managers gave the workers at Smithfield incentives to work even when they were sick. There was a $ 500 responsibility bonus if the worker completes his all shifts in the month of April 2020.

Poor working conditions of meat workers [Source: Civil Eats]
But the workers had inadequate personal protective equipment. The bosses did not heed to their demands. These industries also hold a monopoly and as a result, the large players ignore safety norms and get away with it. The companies exploit the workers and yet get shielded from any accountability.

Also, since the carcasses move faster, the workers have to stand close to each other. This increases their chances of getting the virus. The cold, humid working environment could also play a role.

The other countries with similar outbreaks in the meat industry

Clusters of COVID-19 cases were reported from the pork, beef, and poultry industries of Brazil and Germany. Additionally, there were similar outbreaks in Canada, Australia, Ireland, Spain,  the United Kingdom, and France. At Alberta in Canada at the Cargill beef processing plant, 949/2000 employees tested positive for the virus. These were usually immigrants from war-ridden countries.

Abattoir in Gutersloh in Germany [Source: BBC]
And now as lockdown is easing, France and Germany have reported coronavirus outbreaks in their meat processing industries. The recent is the outbreak in an abattoir in Gutersloh in Germany. 650 people have been infected and more testing is ongoing. In Germany as well, more than 80% of the workers are temporary workers and migrants. They come mainly from Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, and other relatively poor countries of South and Eastern Europe.

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