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Vol 9 No 2 (2022)

The Essential Crowd: Service Workers and Social Death in Pandemic Times

January 25, 2021
February 28, 2022


During the spring of 2020, public messaging in the United States regarding COVID-19 conveyed the idea that pandemics and viral infections strike people from ‘all walks of life’ and that ‘diseases know no borders’. Corporations and media outlets disseminated the message that ‘we are all in this together’. While there might be some truth in these messages, they have also been challenged as existing social inequalities have been exposed by the impacts of COVID-19. The slogan ‘we are all in this together’—which apportions risk equally—is undermined when we consider the ‘social apparatus’ that informs people’s everyday lives. While people from some walks of life have been afforded the opportunity to telework, for instance, others have been required to report physically to workplaces. Given the tag ‘essential workers’, these people often work in places that carry greater risk of infection, partly because these spaces are some of the few remaining in which crowds continue to gather during the global pandemic. We use Lisa Marie Cacho’s (2012) formulation of the concept of ‘social death’ to offer a working theoretical model of essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. We engage with Cacho’s model of ‘social death’ to highlight the blurred lines, in times of crisis, between those rendered valuable and valueless (or disposable).