A Tyson Fresh Meats plant stands in Waterloo, Iowa, date not known. On Friday, April 17, 2020, more than a dozen Iowa elected officials asked Tyson to close the pork processing plant because of the spread of the coronavirus among its workforce of nearly 3,000 people. (Jeff Reinitz/The Courier/AP)
Listen to one Tyson employee's message to Donald Trump
02:30 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is a longtime journalist based in South Carolina and the Batten Professor for Communication Studies at Davidson College. He’s the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South.” His next book, “Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland,” will be released by Other Press this year. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

I love eating meat. A meal doesn’t feel like a meal without meat, even if it’s just a slice of bologna sandwiched between wheat bread, like I had this morning. I like my steak well done, my chicken fried or baked or battered, my sausage spicy and my hamburger well seasoned with just the right mix of ketchup and mustard. I might forget to eat my vegetables, but I never forget to add the meat.

Issac Bailey

But I’m willing to give it up if it means people like my brother – who worked at a small poultry processing plant in South Carolina – don’t have to risk their lives doing their jobs during this pandemic. President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday aimed at keeping these meat processing facilities open, even though more than 4,900 workers have tested positive for Covid-19, and at least 20 have died, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.

After serving a decadeslong prison sentence, the only steady work Moochie could initially get was at the poultry processing plant, where he had to deal with a unique mixture of blood and other fluids for several hours a day. That’s nothing new to us, though. Where we grew up, it was nothing to watch a man knock out a pig with an ax before removing its head and hanging it up on a long rusty nail on the side of the barn to let the blood drain and … you get the picture.

We aren’t squeamish. We aren’t vegetarians. Heck, when two of my nieces brought vegan burgers to a cookout and asked that we guard them so no one else would eat them before they could to get the grill, we giggled. Their vegan burgers were safe around us. That’s why I will admit that a part of me silently approved of President Trump’s decision to use the Defense Production Act to keep meat and poultry processing plants open. That part of me – the meat eater in me – doesn’t know that there can be life without meat, or at least not a fulfilling life. To me, food is meat and meat is food. But then I thought about Moochie, and it seemed wrong to expect people to risk their lives so I can keep eating chicken nuggets.

I know it won’t be easy to give up meat. Breaking a decadeslong pattern of behavior is no small task. Honestly, it still feels like an impossible transition even as I’m typing these words.

Every now and again, forces beyond our control reshape the world in ways we can’t anticipate. That’s what this coronavirus is doing, whether we like it or not. When something major happens, the sudden change can be frightening. In that state, our focus is mostly on what we are likely to lose, and the things we don’t want to let go of because they’ve long brought us comfort. We want to go to the movies and sit down in restaurants and yell expletives at football players in packed stadiums and hug friends and decide to not wash our hands after using public restrooms because that’s what we’ve long done. And because we’re Americans, damn it, and Americans get to do what we want to do!

In that state of mind, we leave little room for new possibilities. We don’t consider whether our habits are really necessary – or whether they might feel vital or sacrosanct only because we’ve long done them. Maybe there is a better way to enjoy each other’s company than meeting up for lunch at the local grill. Maybe there’s a better way to eat than making meat the centerpiece of just about every meal, particularly given that we think this coronavirus jumped from animals to humans.

Our bodies can survive without eating pork or beef or chicken or any other meat. And there’s reason to believe the average American might be more susceptible to the ravages of Covid-19 because of our relatively poor state of health, which has been caused in part by fetishizing meat. We know it’s a fetish because even though the President of the United States and corporate executives have been trying to force already-vulnerable workers to potentially expose themselves to Covid-19 just so we can keep eating meat, there was not a big outcry. Few of us protested or got the absurdity, the immorality, of telling fellow human beings to risk sacrificing themselves so the rest of us can keep eating burgers.

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    This coronavirus isn’t the first virus to change the course of world history and it won’t be the last. It has disrupted our lives in awful ways, and it may have pushed the country into another economic recession. It’s a reminder that we aren’t in control of everything. But there are some things we can do, and how we respond to this pandemic is one. As part of that response, we should reconsider our relationship with meat, and question our long-standing behaviors that have brought us comfort while putting the most vulnerable among us at greater risk.