Next week on Wednesday April 26 at the PNC Arts Center at 10:15 a.m. New Jersey’s public safety community and the unions that represent first responders are planning to form a caravan that will travel to the Epic Church in Sayreville where there will be a non-denominational service to honor the 45 public safety professionals that died on the job during COVID.
This “Proper Tribute” comes just a couple of weeks ahead of the May 11th announcement by the Biden White House that the federal government is ending the COVID public health emergency that was first declared by President Trump more than three years ago. To this day, there is no registry of the perhaps tens of thousands of first responders, healthcare professionals, transport personnel, and other essential workers who died in that initial wave when we had an inadequate supply of N-95s and no vaccines.
Because of the virulent nature of the COVID pandemic that took 1.1 million American lives, including more than 113,000 here in New York and New Jersey, these local heroes, as well as the families they left behind did not get the proper recognition because congregant gatherings were prohibited. It’s also important to keep in mind, that unlike other line of duty deaths, death by infectious disease means these heroes inadvertently exposed their families to the deadly virus.
A HEAVY PRICE
As NPR reported last year, 2021 “was the deadliest for active-duty law enforcement in nearly a century, with COVID-19 identified as the leading cause of death for the second year in a row.”
“Some 458 local, state, tribal and federal officers died in the line of duty in 2021, according to a preliminary report from the National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum (NLEOMF),” NPR reported. “That makes an increase of 55 percent from the previous year’s tally of 295 and the highest total number since 1930.”
According to the NLEOMF report, 2021’s preliminary data showed 301 officer deaths had been linked to Covid, up markedly from 2020, when at least 182 officers died of the virus, a 65 percent spike in just one year.
And it wasn’t just first responders who gave their final full measure.
According to an investigation by the Guardian Newspapers and Kaiser Health News, at least 3,600 healthcare workers died in that first wave of COVID, 721 from New York and New Jersey. Close to two-thirds of them were people of color.
In New York City, well over 100 TWU Local 100 bus and subway employees of the MTA lost their lives due to their workplace exposure to the virus. In New York City, close to 400 civil servants ranging every title from schoolteacher to diesel mechanic perished in that wave. Their work was different, yet they all shared a common commitment to supporting their families and keeping our society functioning when it was at its most fragile.
Even now, according to the U.S. GAO, so-called long COVID has affected 23 million American workers, with close to one million workers actually disabled by it. Many of these folks were first responders, healthcare staff, transport workers and other essential workers whose lives have been forever altered by their service.
COVID itself is ample evidence of the utter failure of our nation’s healthcare system we are programmed to believe is the best in the world. The U.S. is only four percent of the world’s population, yet we were 12 percent of the world’s COVID deaths and counting.
There’s every indication that it was the nature of our for-profit healthcare system that’s rooted in scarcity that actually drove the pandemic’s body count. For years before the pandemic, the U.S. paid the MOST for healthcare of any wealthy nation in the world and yet had the poorest health outcomes with declining life expectancy to show for it.
But that’s only part of the cause for our fractured tribal response to the greatest collective threat to our population since the Great Influenza that killed 675,000 Americans starting in 1918. There’s no doubt that the lack of uniform compliance with public health measures helped to spread the virus and drive up the body count.
A NATION DIVIDED
It’s no coincidence that the country was knee capped in its response by the sharp divide in our polity that politicians and the likes of Fox News exploited. Even before the violent January 6 Insurrection, thanks to the decline of local authenticated news, millions of Americans were sequestered into a bubble of distrust by a mass communications network that deliberately misinformed them in order to maintain their market share.
Even as more detailed reports come out about the out court settlement that requires Fox News to pay Dominion Voting Systems close to $800 for willfully spreading lies about the company and the 2020 election, there’s scant attention being paid to how the same news outlet helped create a climate of fear and intimidation that drove several hundred local health officials from their posts.
At their core, our nation’s tragically fractured response to COVID and the insurrection of Jan. 6 are killer weeds sprung from the same root stock — mass ignorance which has gotten traction as the authentic local news business died, replaced by unverified social media posts and internet speculation.
For decades now, America’s local newspapers, radio and TV stations have been gobbled up by a handful of giant corporations whose only allegiance is to their overpaid corporate officers and stockholders from nowhere in particular.
Gannett is such a player that owns one in five of America’s newspapers, and has a reputation of gutting the staffs of the local newspapers it absorbs. This drill of gutting community newspapers has become a pro forma squeeze play by Wall Street and hedge fund pirates. In the case of Gannett, it has meant piling on hundreds of millions in debt for self-serving bonuses and stock buy backs even as the stock price declined.
The NewsGuild-CWA represents more than 50 Gannett-owned newsrooms across the country. Many of these newsrooms organized in the past couple of years, even as conglomerates like Gannett bought up newspapers, sold of their real estate, and slashed their workforces. According to the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media’s report The Expanding News Desert since 2004, our nation has lost 1,800 newspapers, including more than 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies.
In their mission statement kicking off their successful union drive back in 2021, New Jersey NewsGuild journalists who work for Gannett wrote that since 2016, they had seen “more than half of our colleagues lose their jobs, with cuts of over 250 people at The Record, the Daily Record and the NJ Herald.”
The pro-union journalists described how Gannett unceremoniously laid off “a reporter nearly nine months pregnant and a 30-year-veteran reporter who was forced to take a buyout after missing a single email to opt out of the process.”
“By forming a union, we are taking a stand for respect and dignity, and greater protections against unjust terminations and reductions in force,” the union mission statement said. “We are uniting with NewsGuild members around the country in a movement to save local news and ensure a seat at the table when decisions are made that affect our paper and the news coverage we provide. There is no journalism without journalists.”
Tomorrow at 1 p.m. at Bradley Beach Park in Asbury Park journalists from three of Gannett’s New Jersey publications – the Asbury Park Press, Courier News, and Home News are rallying to prevent cuts to local news coverage and demand a contract with a living wage for journalists.
In the last four years, as the need for authenticated local news has been demonstrated over and over, Gannett cut its workforce in half. In just the past year, CEO Mike Reed has doubled down on this strategy firing more than 600 employers or nearly one fifth of the journalists’ jobs in just the past year.
“Even amid these cuts, Gannett has handsomely compensated its corporate leadership, paying out lavish bonuses to its executives, including a $1.2 million bonus to their CFO for his ‘sacrifices during the pandemic’ and a 2021 salary of $7.74 million to CEO Mike Reed (160 times the median salary of a Gannett worker),” according to union press release. “Gannett also continues to spend huge sums on union-busting law firms while violating labor and wage and hour laws, paying poverty wages, slashing newsroom staff and failing on diversity goals.”
Throughout the pandemic, it was reporting in newspapers like the Asbury Park Press that chronicled the sacrifice of our first responders, healthcare personnel and other essential workers. It held up a mirror to our state government’s struggle to protect our loved ones in congregant care facilities.
Whether it be a once in a lifetime mass death event, or the challenges posed by the climate crisis, a well-informed population clued into local conditions around them is the essential foundation of a durable civil defense.