Rethinking “Essential”

As of midnight last night, the State of Ohio has gone under a “shelter in place” order.  That means all residents, like us, are supposed to stay home for the most part, except for designated exceptions like seeking medical care, shopping for necessary supplies, and going out to get fresh air and exercise by walking, biking, or jogging, so long as you maintain that “social distance.”  The order will be in effect until April 6.

Old tools on a wooden tableOne of the more interesting things about the Ohio order is that it designates specific businesses and jobs that are considered “essential” for purposes of operations during the brief shutdown period.  The Ohio list is based on a list prepared by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and you can read about it here.   In a society as complex as ours, with an economy as varied and multi-faceted as ours, you’d expect the list to be an extensive one, and it is.  (And I’m happy to report that lawyers made the list, incidentally.)

The list should get us all thinking, however, about the concept of “essentialness” when a crisis arises.  Obviously, people who provide medical care — doctors, nurses, lab technicians, and the like — and people whose jobs involve facilitating the delivery of medical care, like pharmacists and emergency medical technicians, are at the top of the list.  We should all be grateful for the health care professionals who are truly on the front lines as we deal with COVID-19.  And, of course, police officers and fire fighters are essential in times of crisis, just as they are in more normal times.

But many of the other jobs that are crucially important might be a bit under the radar — and, until now at least, perhaps underappreciated as well.   Like truck drivers who are hauling and delivering needed supplies and driving incredibly long hours to do so.  Like the people at the grocery stores repeatedly stocking the shelves, arranging for new deliveries, and checking out the worried consumers who want the reassurance of ample supplies at home.  Like the postal service and delivery truck drivers who are continuing to bring messages and products to our doorsteps.  Like plumbers, and electricians, and roofers and repairmen who can fix our appliances and keep our homes in working order.

The long and short of it is that many of the truly essential jobs when we get into a pinch are traditional blue-collar-type trades that don’t require a four-year liberal arts college degree.  Those are the people who keep the food supply chain working and the toilets flushing and the lights turned on.  We should all be thankful to them for their hard work and their unrelenting efforts during this period, but when this episode passes — and it will — perhaps we should also rethink the prevailing view that everyone should go to college and go deeply in debt to do so.  Perhaps we should focus, instead, on the concept of “essentialness” and making sure that we’ve got an ample supply of those truly essential tradespeople on hand and ready to serve when the need is critical.

Degrees in comparative philosophy are nice, but in a crisis you just can’t have too many plumbers.

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