By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor
A year ago we didn't appreciate hospital housekeepers or grocery store workers the way we do today. Perhaps some of us took the mail carrier, food delivery driver, or meat packer for granted.
Today, we celebrate the people whose work requires them to be on the front lines while so many others work from home. More than 55 million Americans work in jobs that are deemed essential, according to the Economic Policy Institute (pictured above, John Tolbert, a New York City bus driver). Social distancing is not an option for many of these jobs. Many essential workers work for low pay and without protective equipment. Some work anxiously, fearing exposure to the deadly coronavirus. Too many have died after contracting COVID- 19.
Led by an amazing cadre of nearly 17 million health professionals, they continued to show up for work during the height of statewide stay-at-home orders in April. These essential workers continue to show up today, mostly without hazard pay or, in the case of many undocumented farmworkers or meat packers providing America’s food, without legal protection. It’s a similar story throughout many parts of the world.
These workers have kept on in fields through record temperatures and wildfires (pictured below, a group of farmworkers with H-2 visas in California) and in Midwest packing plants with conditions that have spurred on COVID-19 infection—and death.
In the U.S., Labor Day was deemed a holiday in September way back in 1894 to recognize workers, but it took 44 years for strong labor laws to be put into effect to protect them. The crises this year has provided the biggest spotlight in decades on workers—and the dignity of their labor.
This recognition is overdue, says Panella Page, whose work as a housekeeper in a Detroit hospital is suddenly vital—and more dangerous. “If the hospital is not cleaned properly, even more people will die,” she tells Nat Geo.
It’s scary, she says, to report to work “for your purpose and your passion, to get a paycheck that you don’t know whether you’ll be around to deposit.”
On this Labor Day, let’s salute these essential workers, whose remarkable level of commitment comes in a society with an uncertain commitment to them.
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Today in a minute
Is 2020 really worse than other years? Unfettered media consumption may play a role in that perception, but people throughout history have judged the present more harshly than the past. Even Ancient Athenians complained in the fifth century B.C. that democracy wasn't what it used to be, writes Rebecca Renner for Nat Geo. Scholars say that people tend to remember positive events from the past, such as going to a ballgame, rather than whether their team lost. Renner acknowledges today's pandemic is scary, but understands she's not a medieval peasant during the bubonic plague with no understanding of how germs work.
It once controlled the gold trade: Excavations from a now-abandoned island city in modern-day Tanzania have challenged colonist assumptions about African rule. Members of the Bantu people played a key role in the development and reign of Kilwa, sprinkling their Swahili with Arabic and Persian phrases of traders and longtime settlers. “The island’s rulers,” María José Norain writes for Nat Geo’s History magazine, “belonged to Afro-Arabian families established for generations in Africa.” Subscribers can read more here.
‘Lost Colony’ not lost? A new book has a different explanation of what happened to a group of English colonists on Roanoke Island. It argues that the colonists, not found on subsequent stops by English vessels to today’s Outer Banks of North Carolina, likely were taken in by Native Americans on nearby islands, the New York Times reports. The tale of these 100 settlers was mythologized after the Civil War, saluting their imagined heroism and suggesting some had been killed fighting with Native Americans.
It was 102 years ago Saturday ... that Russia began a state-sanctioned campaign of mass killings and detentions to silence political enemies. The three-year campaign, known as the Red Terror, laid the foundation for decades of violence in the Soviet Union. Within months, secret police killed 10,000 real or imagined enemies of the regime. “We are not waging war against individual persons,” said secret police leader Martyn Latsis. “We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class.” Erin Blakemore examines this bloody history for Nat Geo.
Thank you, thanaka: While walking around the world, Nat Geo’s Paul Salopek sees a lot of striking stuff. In Myanmar, he found that people slathered on their faces a pale yellow paste made from pulverized tree bark. Called thanaka, it’s said to soften the skin, prevent wrinkles and sunburn, and keep mosquitoes away. “Thanaka is not meant to be subtle, to hide flaws or accentuate features. It is a sun-bright symbol of health and beauty,” Salopek writes in his latest dispatch.
Instagram photo of the day
Remote work: At the southernmost tip of South America, a group of women are working together to keep alive their cultural tradition of spinning and weaving wool for clothing. “Each garment carries with it the immensity of Tierra del Fuego, a big respect for nature and for our own history,” says weaver Norma Enriquez, noting that their pieces come from local sheep's wool. They are colored by natural dyes made with native plant roots, leaves, and fruits. Above, a portrait of weaver Esther Condori in Argentina’s Playa Larga Nature Reserve.
Read: The spinners at ‘the end of the world’
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The big takeaway
Nothing new: The cries of “Wuhan Virus” from some Americans is just the latest slur hurled at Asian Americans, who had suffered from generations of state-sanctioned discrimination. Nina Strochlic examines if the U.S. can, this time, halt false, fear-mongering, COVID-19 scapegoating from turning into exclusionary national policy. “It’s a constant fight because these racist tropes are really part of the American fabric,” advocate Manjusha Kulkarni tells Strochlic. “They’re more American than not.” (Pictured above, physician’s assistant Danny Satow, at center, who was walking home in April when someone threw a water bottle at her and called her a racial slur. With Satow are her grandfather, Eisaku "Ace" Hiromura, a U.S. World War II vet, and her grandmother, Haruka "Alice" Kikuchi, who spent the war imprisoned in Japanese internment camps in California.)
Related: How to talk to kids about xenophobia
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Face down: That’s how Germans buried many victims of medieval pandemics. Why? Partly because of a fear of the “undead,” Andrew Curry writes for Nat Geo. An analysis of 100 prone burials suggest the unusual burial style was linked to deaths from plagues and a belief among survivors that victims might come back to haunt the living. In parts of Eastern Europe, fearful of tales of vampires and the undead, some of the bodies were mutilated or weighted down with stones to prevent escape from their graves. Read on ... if you dare! (Pictured above, a 16th-century drawing by Hand Baldung Grien depicts a German mercenary speaking with Death.)