The use of the term “frontline” as an adjective dates only from 1915. The application was military. In the Great War, as with most wars, the lower your rank in the military, the more likely you are to be assigned to confront the enemy and risk your life. Some people are in the trenches, hoping to avoid poison gas; others are in the wood-panelled billiard rooms enjoying cigars.
The conduct of war always has been and always will deploy a caste system. Those who make decisions bear the least risk; they always choose others – their lessers – to bear the highest cost. The ruling class makes the rules, and those rules spare the ruling class above all else. Frontline soldiers are fodder. They take orders or get punished for noncompliance.
The war on Covid has been no different. To be a “frontline” worker these days could be a heroic choice. Or it could be a cruel assignment by your betters. The generals and officers in the war on the virus stayed safe, retreating to their bunkers to watch the war on the Internet, while their lessers kept the goods and services moving.
The New York Times provided the guidance here: it instructed its privileged readers to stay home, stay safe, and have their groceries and other services delivered to them by others, presumably people who don’t enjoy the luxury of reading the New York Times.
Those making the deliveries were on the frontlines, the people assigned to confront the pathogenic enemy most directly through exposure.
Somehow the ruling class managed to pass off this advice as caring for others. It was not that. It was forcing the burden of herd immunity onto workers, while the laptop class could wait for natural endemicity or a vaccine. The clean and powerful dictated the terms to the unclean and powerless.
We are surrounded by the symbols of this new wartime feudalism. The customer is blocked from interacting with the workers via a plexiglass shield. In many parts of the country and the world, the servers mask up while the consumers breathe freely. You have to stay 6 feet away from random strangers because god only knows if a person is them and not us. Some people can travel internationally while some people cannot: the difference is access to permission from the government.
Once the vaccine arrived, the same ruling class demanded even more non-exposure for themselves by insisting that they be universally adopted – not allocated by risk or severity demographics but forced on the whole population. Those who gained immunity from exposure did not count.
However, there are certain exceptions: the powerful unions of the US Postal Service, and the entire staff of the legislative branch, for example. Somehow the Biden administration imagines that it has the power to force the jab on every person in the US who works for a company that employs more than 100 people but draws the line at imposing it on the people who make the laws.
Meanwhile, the same administration has chosen to stigmatize and demonize the working people who bore risk of exposure and now have doubts about the vaccine, not irrationality: they are more likely to be among the millions with natural immunity. They are disproportionately from the working classes and from minority communities – people the ruling class very easily regards as stupid and unclean. They are being compelled into compliance, based on the false impression that this path alone will protect everyone else – where “everyone else” in this case is again the same people who made the rules and believe themselves entitled to a pathogen-free life.
There is nothing surprising about this. The caste system defined the whole of the response to Covid. It was unlike anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes, the organization of war and its privilege-based allocation of risk applied to the whole of society. We eschewed such brutality in past experiences with pathogens, favoring instead equality, social functioning, doctor-patient relationships, and medical science over central plans. This time, we decided to protect people not by rational risk assessment as we had in the past but by social position and class, all administered by a scientific/planning elite that thought mostly about themselves.
This seemed obvious to me from the beginning, and I wanted no part of it. I’ve avoided using delivery services for food and other items for this reason, but that too is a pointless endeavor: truly the people who stepped up and kept society functioning have been heroes throughout, even if they didn’t choose their plight.
Many of them are entrepreneurs who deserve a reward for their service. They didn’t make the policies. They didn’t close the schools and wreck human rights. They are doing what they can and must to survive during hard times. They deserve our gratitude to the same degree that those who dared group workers into essential and nonessential deserve our disdain.
For many younger people of a certain class, using delivery services is just the way they live. They get everything delivered. Especially during Covid lockdowns, these services really took off, and now they have formed a habit on the part of millions. Good for the companies that saw the opportunity and jumped on it. Here is the very essence of the best part of free enterprise: service to others. Yes, it spoils us, but it is the best system yet invented to meet human material needs.
In normal times, the development of such services would be a thing to celebrate. The lockdowns distorted the natural evolution of the market. Such policies would never have been attempted 20 years ago. The technology for a huge swath of the population to “stay home and stay safe” – ordering online and Netflixing while waiting for delivery notifications – did not exist. Lockdowns abused the technological progress we have experienced in ways that unjustly privileged some at others’ expense.
The man who came to my door last evening was young, healthy, and of essentially zero risk from the pathogen. He knows that, even if the CDC never communicated that to people directly. He hasn’t stopped working for the last 18 months; he chose to use the last year to boost his income by serving increased market demand.
He works for DoorDash. It is an impressive third-party service with which many other services connect. The private-for-now service called Drizly, for example, somehow figured out how to navigate strict liquor laws to link to many local stores, and then they in turn contract with service deliveries like DoorDash to get that bottle to your door within an hour or two.
The man who delivered my goods had a few minutes to spare but not that many. I spoke to him about his life and work. He wakes very early every day and delivers for UPS. After that job is done, he grabs his car and signs into his DoorDash app and starts hustling those deliveries too, working through the dinner hour and sometimes late into the evening. He does this 7 days a week, racking up as many hours as possible and collecting as many tips as possible. It’s a true inspiration!
So it has been throughout the pandemic lockdowns. Even as supply chains all over the world have been shattered, new ones in the delivery business have been developed and entrenched. At no point in the lockdowns were people denied the opportunity to get a bottle of liquor delivered to their door. The USA: you can shut the churches and concerts, exclude people without Covid from having access to medical and counseling services, but shutting liquor stores and pot shops is absolutely unthinkable.
When Amazon first spoke about developing their own version of UPS with trucks and drivers, I thought the idea too wildly ambitious. Now those trucks are all over the place. The company found that internalizing the costs of delivery was more efficient than working with a third party. One might assume that it would be impossible to complete with UPS and the Post Office, but somehow Amazon figured it out. Its “Flex” program is recruiting drivers away from Uber and Lyfte on a daily basis, boosting wages for drivers in ways that no state-level mandates have achieved.
Quietly but importantly, last-mile delivery services have dramatically changed American retail commerce during lockdowns. Postmates and Instacart are competing for every possible delivery service, along with drivers and cars. Target is following Amazon and starting its own service called Shipt. Walmart too is getting into the business with GoLocal, which is taking direct aim at Amazon. It intends to have its own trucks and drivers too.
The world is such a disaster these days that sometimes it is helpful and hopeful to look at the many ways in which creative people can figure out how to cobble together a civilized life, despite everything. As my delivery guy left, I tipped him well, and thanked him for his service. In times when governments are working overtime to wreck life as we know it, these people deserve all our respect and appreciation, especially since the ruling class apparently cares nothing about them.
They were assigned to the frontlines. They bore the burden, not only of doing the work but of being exposed to the virus and gaining natural immunities that the ruling class now tells them does not count for real immunity. Do they have reason to be resentful? The answer is clearly yes. We have every reason to celebrate their sacrifice, defend their rights and freedoms, and condemn those who dared bring the caste system of war to a social order that has previously made such impressive gains in equality and human rights.
This is the world lockdowns made and vaccine mandates have entrenched. It is pre-modern and brutal, a social system constructed in the name of disease mitigation that locks everyone into their classes and states, a world in which our rulers utter the words freedom and choice only with dismissive disdain. To claw our way back to a humane and free social order of equals – a society that rejects assigned rank and legal privilege in favor of universal rights – is the great challenge of our time.