I was in the US Army post-9/11 during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of the way 9/11 shaped American thinking about the military (as well as about police and firefighters), I had countless experiences of being thanked by strangers for my service.
If 9/11 caused people to recognize and appreciate the importance of military and first responders to our society, the COVID-19 pandemic should do the same for the workers who--it is not an exaggeration to say--are standing between us and the collapse of society.
These workers include custodial staff, grocery store workers, delivery people, utility crews, maintenance workers, pharmacy techs, LPNs, sanitation workers. I admit I don't know the comprehensive list, because I'm socialized to overlook their contributions.
It's not an exaggeration to say that these are the people who are holding off disaster. They're stocking the shelves that we're panic-buying from, cleaning all the surfaces we're whining about touching, and keeping basic services running. Frankly, any worker connected with utilities should be able to claim that they've saved countless lives. However bad coronavirus is, if the clean water stops flowing to our houses, coronavirus is a just drop in the bucket. We're only days away from dysentery, typhoid, and dehydration that would be vastly more lethal.
Many of these workers are among the most marginalized in western societies. They are often paid a minimum allowable wage--which politicians rountinely oppose raising. In the United States, they are likely to not have good health insurance. Their positions are often insecure and subject to being fired in a downturn. They cannot do their jobs from home. And, most ironically of all, many of them must closely interact with many members of the public, so they are probably among the most vulnerable people in a pandemic.
A valuable outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic would be for it to force us to recognize the essential role that these workers play in society's survival. At a one-on-one level, that recognition should mean thanking these workers.
I'm going to start saying to workers in these positions, "Thank you for keeping us together." The idea behind this phrase is, "We would be falling apart, but you're keeping us together."
Workers in these positions deserve "Thank you for keeping us together" more than I ever deserved "Thank you for your service."
I'm hoping also to capture this with the h/t #KeepingUsTogether
This recognition also has much bigger implications. If we recognize that our society cannot survive without the work these people do, then we should also recognize that society has a practical and moral obligation to support their well-being. In an American context, for instance, we could get over the discourse that we can't afford to pay essential workers a living wage or provide universal health care--and instead recognize that we can't afford not to.