A lot of Americans have been faced with a scary choice in recent weeks: Stay at home and be as safe as possible from the COVID-19 virus or go to work to keep your job and face the possibility of infection and worse. It’s an existential decision in the very real sense of the term that many teachers, for example, will be facing in coming weeks.
“Frontline,” the premier PBS documentary and investigative series, movingly explores the lives of one group of workers facing that decision in the harshest terms: workers in the fields and meat processing plants of California, many of whom are undocumented immigrants.
It was impossible for me to watch the report titled “COVID’s Hidden Toll,” which debuts Tuesday night, and not flash back to Edward R. Murrow’s landmark CBS production in 1960, “Harvest of Shame.” With its combination of hard-edged investigative reporting and empathetic storytelling, “COVID’s Hidden Toll” is a video call to the nation’s social conscience to think and care about the people who are risking their lives to keep the food supply flowing to supermarkets and our dining room tables. They are called “essential workers,” but they are hardly treated that way by most of the agricultural companies in California shown in this report.
Journalists Daffodil Altan and Andrés Cediel have the wisdom to allow the workers interviewed in this documentary enough space to tell their stories in their own words. And that respect for the people in this film helps us see the world of these workers through their own eyes.
The documentary opens with a camera panning over the Salinas Valley community of Greenfield in the predawn hours before taking viewers inside a small ranch home there.
“When I first heard they were going to close stores, restaurants and all that, that frightened me,” a woman says in a voice over. “My first thought was to protect ourselves. To not leave the house.”
Inside the house, the camera shows her getting dressed in work clothes.
“When it comes to my health, I don’t talk about it with anyone. I have cancer,” the voice over continues. “But in these times, we have to work out of necessity, despite the fear we may have.”
The woman is Sinthia Hernandez, who works as a broccoli picker. In addition to cancer, she has diabetes, we are told. The camera follows her as a van picks her and 14 others up in the chilly darkness of 4 a.m. to take them to the fields.
We are packed like sardines in that van,” Hernandez says. “There’s no social distancing. We are all huddled and crammed in there like little kids.”
As we see her and other workers setting up their work stations in the field, we hear her say, “We go out in the field and expose ourselves. We are not robots. Just because we work in the fields, it doesn’t mean we won’t get infected. We will get infected.”
In addition to serving as co-writer, co-director and co-producer with Cediel, Altan is correspondent for the documentary.
“As millions of Americans were sheltering in place the past months, we began looking at the toll the coronavirus was taking on those who cannot stay home: agricultural workers ― many of them undocumented ― who are deemed essential to the nation’s food supply,” Altan says.
Many of us have been living with fear since the virus started tearing through our lives. What used to be a routine act like going to the supermarket started feeling like a military operation with a check of gloves and mask and the objective of getting in and out of the store as fast as possible while not getting within six feet of anyone, especially if we are in one of the higher risks groups by nature of age or medical conditions.
But the fear of many of the people in “COVID’s hidden toll” runs so much deeper than that. One of the greatest accomplishments of this documentary is that you can literally feel that fear as you watch. It is made palpable at a visceral level, and then explained intellectually by experts in the film.
“It’s not your middle-class essential worker that people are talking about. This essential worker, a lot of them do in fact live in fear,” says Dr. Max Cuevas, who runs a series of clinics in the valley serving the medical needs of the workers, according to the documentary. “They don’t want people to know that they’re here undocumented. There’s that fear of, ‘I could be gone tomorrow if I’m taken away, and what’s going to happen to my family?‘ It’s a horrible kind of fear that people learn to live with. You try to assure them that, ‘Don’t be afraid of that one right now. Be afraid of the virus.‘”
The image that sticks in my mind is that of workers on a predawn bus ride to the fields. It looks as if everyone is wearing some version of a mask, but you can see their eyes, and the uncertainty and fear in them is impossible to miss. The workers’ uncertainty and fear permeate this documentary.
A worker at a meat packing plant says, “Every day we go to work, we’re thinking about the coronavirus ― if we’re going to catch it again. Who is going to catch it? Is it on the walls? Is it on the product? Is it on the equipment we use? It doesn’t feel like we’re essential workers. It feels like we’re slaves.”
Viewers are told more than 200 workers have tested positive at the plant.
There is outstanding reporting in this documentary. Viewers are taken via cellphone video to a scene outside a fruit and vegetable processing plant where fear, uncertainty and lack of trustworthy information about the virus fueled a potential confrontation when word has spread that one of the workers was found to be infected with the virus. Work stopped and some of the workers did not want to go inside the plant.
A person identified as a representative from the company’s human resources department addressed the workers.
They were told, they “could all be fired” if they didn’t go back to work. If they were not going back, they should go to human resources, they were told, and sign what was described as a ”voluntary quit” form.
“That’s what made us upset, because we do want to work,” the woman who shot the video says. “But we want to be safe.”
It has been almost 60 years since “Harvest of Shame” first aired, and “COVID’s Hidden Toll” clearly shows that these essential workers tasked with producing the nation’s food supply are still being systematically exploited.
It has always been shameful if not criminal. But now with COVID-19 taking more than 130,000 lives, a disproportionate number of them in the Latino community, it is a matter of life and death for these workers that something be done to protect them. The federal government should do it. But does anyone really think that will happen with Donald Trump in the White House?
Latest David Zurawik
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.