The recent flip of the off-on again switch by the 9/11 Memorial over its annual display of two parallel beacons of light in lower Manhattan prompted the Daily News to suggest that somehow the current pandemic had eclipsed the WTC attack.
“The coronavirus pandemic has dwarfed the human and even economic devastation caused by the terror attacks on the World Trade Center,” suggested the newspaper. “More than 32,000 New Yorkers have died from coronavirus, more than 10 times the death toll of 9/11.”
Back on April 4, here in New Jersey Gov. Murphy noted that our state’s COVID death toll had hit 846,
surpassing the 704 resident we lost on September 11. Our COVID toll is now closing in on 16,000.
As the Daily News suggests, the two events are of a different magnitude. Yet, the one thing they share is the huge price they are exacting from first responders and other essential workers in terms of premature death and likely long-term disability.
9/11 BODY COUNT GROWS
As many, if not more people have died since 9/11 from their occupational or chronic residential exposure to breathing the toxic air in lower Manhattan that our former Governor Christie Todd Whitman, then EPA administrator, said was “safe to breathe” but was more like Drano.
At least 50,000 people, most of them first responders, are now enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program with one or more life-altering medical issues.
While 343 New York City Firefighters died on the day of the attack, well over 200 have died from their WTC exposure. For the NYPD, the post 9/11 toll has been even greater. While 23 died on the day of the attack, close to 250 have died from breathing the air the EPA told them was safe.
And those are just two of the civil service titles that responded on that day and for the several months after during the WTC clean-up. There are other city, state and Federal civil servants as well as volunteers and construction workers whose lives and that of their families were forever altered by the Federal government’s deceit.
‘SAFE TO BREATHE’
Three days after the 9/11 attack, it was former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman, then head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who told reporters that “the good news continues to be that air samples we have taken have all been at levels that cause us no concern.”
That upbeat and inaccurate statement was uttered as the fires at the World Trade Center site continued to burn and smolder as it would for months after the towers collapsed.
No doubt, Whitman’s reassurance and the encouraging EPA press releases that followed helped lower Manhattan and Wall Street return to normalcy, just as Trump’s misrepresentations about the pandemic are designed to do today.
For the 9/11 cohort it would take a few years for the idea that the danger had not passed to sink in as thousands began to become sick and die from their exposure to the unique cocktail of abrasive toxins released by the WTC collapse and fires that followed.
BASELESS ALL CLEAR
Two years after 9/11 an investigation by the EPA Inspector General found that EPA “did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement,” as “air monitoring data was lacking for several pollutants of concern.”
Moreover, the OIG learned that it was President George W. Bush’s White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) that heavily edited the EPA press releases “to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones.”
Despite the reality that samples taken indicated asbestos levels in Lower Manhattan were between double and triple EPA’s limit, the CEQ described the readings as just “slightly above” the limit the EPA IG found.
In the years since 9/11, the impact of the EPA’s deception would not just be felt by the tens of thousands of first responders but by the hundreds of thousands of civilians who lived or worked in lower Manhattan and portions of western Brooklyn that the WTC dust cloud contaminated.
19 years later, there is an essential through line between
the first responders who answered the call to lower Manhattan on 9/11 and the first responders, health care and other essential workers that are confronting COVID around the nation.
CIVIL SERVICE ‘CANNON FODDER’
Thousands have already died and many more will be permanently disabled as will their family members they infected as a consequence of performing their “essential” work. This reality is largely ignored or reported on anecdotally at the end of a news program, as if to say ‘ah, that’s too bad. Weren’t they brave? Let’s all pray for them. How about a lawn sign?’
But the occupational risks still deepen as people keep going to work, desperate to keep their jobs as the GOP Senate refuses to provide pandemic relief which ratches up the anxiety and stress on workers to the benefit of their employers.
The GOP consistently demonstrates that their only priority is not protecting the public health or addressing the country’s systemic racism, but the preservation and enhancement of vast fortunes and the holdings of corporate giants.
Just as the Bush White House covered up the risks in lower Manhattan after 9/11, President Trump and his GOP allies conceal the existential threat that COVID poses as they recklessly press for schools to open and downplay the hazards of insufficient testing and national coordination.
CANARY IN THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE
The President’s ability to bully the nation is also enabled by the passivity of so much of organized labor and in the case of the New York City PBA, their actual endorsement.
As dozens of union meat processing workers died from COVID and many more were sickened by the virus, President Trump used the power of his office to help the meat lacking industry blow off local public health officials pressing for transparency and employee testing.
Meat producers pushed back against testing and regulation by claiming that the nation’s meat supply was in jeopardy. In April, that claim prompted President Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act, ordering all meat plants to stay open because they were critical infrastructure.
As the worker body count grew, the virus spread well beyond the meat processing plants and into the communities where they were located. This was made possible by the Trump administration using the power of the Federal government to help the meat processing industry frustrate and successfully resist local public health efforts to suppress the virus.
A VERY POFITABLE LIE
During the pandemic, the industry had actually exported a record volume of product to China while they raised U.S. consumer meat and poultry dramatically, according to a joint investigation conducted by U.S. Senators Cory Book (D-NJ) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
“New data show that meat processing companies continue to export record quantities of meat to China despite warning of shortages,” according to a press release issued by Mr. Booker and Ms. Warren. “Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases in meatpacking plants continues to grow to over 36,000, disproportionately affecting workers of color.”
In addition, four Federal meat inspectors, members of the American Federation of Government Employees died from the virus and in the process exposing their families to it.
AXIS OF AVARICE
“The industry is working with the USDA and headquarters to avoid releasing any of this information so that they can keep people working in these plants no matter what,” Paula Schelling, the acting president of AFGE’s National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, told me. “For us it is critical to know these numbers; the number of people sidelined: the number of people who were in contact with someone who tested positive and the number of facility employees who have tested positive.”
So just what did the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor union do?
Its leader, Richard Trumka wrote a New York Times Op-Ed blasting Trump’s decision to reopen the processing “plants without proper safety protections” as “dangerous and disgraceful.”
“What’s worse, Trump said he would also shield meatpacking companies from legal liability as long as they follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Safety and Health Administration for the facilities, which have proved to be wholly inadequate,” wrote Trumka. “Once again, this administration is favoring executives over working people, and the stock market over human lives. He is forcing workers to choose between a paycheck and their health.”
At that point, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the largest packinghouse union, had confirmed the COVID 19 death of just 20 members, a total that’s closing in in ten times that today.
MIGHTY LABOR PENS AN OP-ED
As it turned out, as reported by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, which followed local newspaper reports assiduously, those COVID meat plant hotspots in rural parts of the South and Midwest blew up rural communities that had been hardest hit by decades of hospital closures.
That week Trumka wrote the op-ed the U.S. reported 70,000 COVID deaths and 1.2 million infections.
Today, we are closing in on 170,000 reported COVID deaths and 5.3 million infections as reports indicate testing has stalled and some states continue to set new death records.
Would a general strike back in May, when Trump ruthlessly helped meat pack plants make a killing and blow off local public health officials made a difference? What if truckers had refused to move their products and grocery workers not packed them out?
We will never know.
What we do know is promises of hazard pay for essential workers just evaporated in the summer heat as Congress failed to provide needed aid to local, county and state governments that will now have to lay off some of the same pandemic heroes they we were applauding in the spring.
The Trump administration’s failure to have a coordinated national public health strategy for containing the virus was compounded by their policy of not mandating universal testing and providing PPE as an employer across the country of two million workers in place like the Transportation Security Administration, the Veterans Administration and Bureau of Prisons.
As the COVID cruelly churns through first responders, health care professionals and the essential workforce Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to condition any additional pandemic aid on extending the kind of liability protections against employee lawsuits, that President Trump gave the meatpackers, to all employers.
Over and over again Trump and GOP demonstrate that they believe the only function of the Federal government is to block and tackle for corporations and the holders of vast wealth and so far, the Democrats and their labor union allies have been steamrolled at every turn.
Because all too often, with noted exceptions, the corporate news media and even public media outlets have historically under reported on the labor movement, they missed many of these stories and if they did report on them they were not contextualized with the life or death gravity they merited.
Rest assured, just as 9/11 and the WTC took a generational toll regionally, COVID will be felt across the nation in the ranks of the police, fire, EMTs, healthcare workers and the rest of the essential workforce.
Many of these workers that are dying or becoming disabled work in the healthcare sector where even before the pandemic, there were critical shortages of personnel.
Now, an emboldened Trump has set his sights on our public schools where the response of the teacher unions has been fractured and localized.
President Trump repeats outright lies about the health risks posed to students and teachers by COVID and pressures the CDC, like the Bush administration did the EPA, to provide the ‘science’ and ‘guidance’ to validate his call for a return to normalcy and fully open economy.
In lower Manhattan in 2001, the Federal government’s reckless disregard for 9/11 first responders extended to the hundreds of thousands of civilians who lived or worked in lower Manhattan and portions of western Brooklyn and were dosed with WTC toxic air.
THE FORCED MARCH TO ‘NORMAL’
It even extended to more than 19,000 school children and staff for 29 New York City public schools that were ordered to return to the classroom just weeks after the attack by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
In the years since, dozens of DOE staff members and students have died, with many more sickened by their exposure to air the Federal government said was safe, while concealing the test results that showed otherwise.
On 9/11, Lila Nordstrom was a senior at Stuyvesant High School, that was three blocks from the World Trade Center. Nordstrom and her classmates were ordered back to school just weeks later as the attack site was still smoldering.
In a recent Daily News op-ed, Nordstom, who is also a WTC Health Program participant, described how her prestigious high school’s reopening on Oct. 9 became a politically charged “symbol” for a return to normalcy after the unsettling attack.
“It was soon clear that a mistake had been made. In November, the New York Times reported ‘As many as 80 students and teachers have visited the school nurse with a range of ailments including headaches, itchy eyes, coughs and even bloody noses.’”
Nordstrom continues. “By the end of the school year, as many as 50,000 students [K-12 and college] had been sent back to downtown schools to face those dangerous conditions. The consequences of our rushed return didn’t end with nosebleeds. Nineteen years later, my classmates and I are suffering from a litany of conditions: chronic respiratory and gastrointestinal conditions, PTSD and cancers.”
Nordstrom, who has started a non-profit to help raise awareness about the post 9/11 health risks for her peers, wrote she had “a distinct sense of déjà vu” in the debate over re-opening the nation’s schools.
“Proponents of a quick return often say that that COVID-19 doesn’t appear to have serious effects in children,” she wrote. “My parents were repeatedly told by the Board of Education’s experts that we wouldn’t suffer any long-term health consequences, so pardon me for not feeling reassured.”
Will America’s schools go the way of her slaughterhouses?