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Fear and the Reaper in the Era of Trump

“[Trump] not only downplayed the virus’ threat, he cut funding for pandemic preparedness, and then failed to coordinate fair access to equipment, stand firmly behind national guidelines, or sufficiently ramp up testing.” — Lenore Friedlaender.
Editor’s Note: Lenore Friedlaender is Assistant to the President, 32BJ and leads the member representation work for Hudson Valley and Long Island.

When President Trump returned from the hospital and said, “Don’t be afraid of COVID. Don’t let it dominate your life,” many of us took it, at best, as further proof that the president simply will not or cannot face the gravity of reality.

As usually happens, his supporters heard it differently. For them, Donald Trump has consistently downplayed COVID to avoid panic and rouse optimism. After all, Presidents before him have done just that when facing national calamities. At his first inaugural address, President Roosevelt told a nation gripped by the Great Depression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

The major difference here is that FDR wasn’t softening the severity of the Depression; he was steeling to fight it. The idea that downplaying COVID is good quickly melts away when you set Trump’s words and deeds against the tragic stories of three members of 32BJ SEIU who we lost to COVID-19 here in the union district I lead on Long Island.

Most of the janitors, building superintendents and other building service workers in our union have to face the possibility of infection every workday. Early in the pandemic, we lost 138 members across our various districts, including six in Long Island, a number that represents almost one percent of the small district’s membership — perhaps the highest percentage of deaths in the union.

Of course, that’s not counting the cost to all the loved ones.

“I’ve been left as a mother and father to our son with special needs,” Concepcion Maldonado said recently. The Hempstead resident lost his partner of twenty years, union janitor Antonia Ramos, when she passed away from COVID on April 8, at age 59.

“Our son is 18 years old, but he doesn’t have the capacity to understand that his mother is gone. ‘She’s in the sky?’ he asks me.”

To take care of his son, Concepcion had to leave his factory job, and he’s unsure how the two will continue after his savings are gone. “I leave it up to God, Antonia always said,” Concepcion remembers.

I joined the bipartisan chorus of Americans who hoped that the president would recover from his own COVID infection. But that shouldn’t stop us from noting that Trump and his team actively disdained simple safety measures for reasons of partisan posturing. It also shouldn’t prevent us from observing that the man who doesn’t fear COVID clearly received more intensive medical attention than almost any other COVID patient could hope to get.

When union janitor Julio Torres first fell ill, he took to his room in the small house he and his wife Blanca Castañeda bought in Uniondale. Eventually, though, his daughter convinced him to go to the hospital. There, the 70-year-old was intubated and fell into a coma from which he never recovered, leaving Blanca a widow after 50 years. “His passing left me with a loneliness that’s so horrible to bear,” she said.

It’s some comfort to his mourning family that union landscaper Salvatore Andreotti passed away in relative peace at his house in Glen Cove, at age 62, on March 31.

“Uncle Sal never married, but he was kind of like a father figure to all four of his nieces,” Michelle Constantino recalled. “He was the person you called if your electric wasn’t working. He just wanted to be with the family….It’s been a difficult road.”

All of our Long Island members fell sick when protective equipment was hard to find, treatment protocols were just being developed, and hospital capacities were stressed. These crises occurred worldwide, of course, but almost every nation’s leadership dealt with them better than the Trump administration did. The president not only downplayed the virus’ threat, he cut funding for pandemic preparedness, and then failed to coordinate fair access to equipment, stand firmly behind national guidelines, or sufficiently ramp up testing. The U.S. has four percent of the world’s population, but this mismanagement helped it eventually become the global leader in coronavirus infections and deaths.

All six Long Island members who passed away also happened to be immigrants. Salvatore emigrated from Italy around 1960, but Julio and Antonia lived here for 20 years with Temporary Protected Status, a legal designation that Donald Trump recently succeeding in ending for 400,000 people. That leaves twice as many U.S. residents open to deportation in 2021 as COVID has so far killed in 2020, including Julio and Antonia’s surviving partners.

In the first 100 days after his inauguration address, Franklin Roosevelt unleashed the most massive attempt at relief that this nation had ever seen, bequeathing major benefits such as Social Security to every American. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has continued his policies of division this election year, not only in immigration, but also against the urgent cry of Black Lives Matter, against the millions covered by the Affordable Care Act (which the administration is cruelly trying to kill in court), against those who let COVID dominate their lives.

Joe Biden has promised to restore TPS holders to legal status on his first day in office. He also has a national plan to address COVID-19 that adheres to science above politics. If one of our Long Island members calls you in the next few days, please consider why they’re asking you to support them in supporting Biden.


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