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An Appreciation: If this is our Pearl Harbor, these are our fighters — and they’re not the ones we might have foreseen


BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — All wars have their front lines, the places where the fighting is most intense and the risks the greatest.

You might think of  soldiers and public safety officers as the types who would serve on the front lines of domestic emergencies, but the COVID-19 pandemic has created an entirely different set of warriors.

They include medical personnel, without question — this is a defining moment for those who’ve answered that call.

But this crisis has produced other front line fighters too — ordinary folks whose contributions to the cause might not have been fully considered by the beneficiaries — we Americans.

Why? Because we has never seen anything like the coronavirus. 

Not the plague, not smallpox, not the Spanish flu. They were devastating, all of them, but they couldn’t fly from country to country across commercial jet streams, not the way coronavirus has been able to do. Nothing has ever created this type of emergency, short of war and acts of war.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams laid it out in stark terms on Sunday: The fight against COVID-19 is a generational crisis with all the logistical urgency and psychological impact of  war.

“The next week,” he said on “Meet the Press,” “is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, it’s going to be our 9/11 moment, it’s going to be the hardest moment for many Americans in their entire lives.”

Indeed, this crisis is in many ways more like the horrors of World War II and the World Trade Center attacks than any of those killer viruses of the past because of the widespread, pervasive and society-changing destruction it has wreaked.

Each of those spasms of human history had its  own unique heroes. 

In World War II, it was the 16 million soldiers, sailors and airmen deployed by the U.S. alone, of whom more than 400,000 died. And millions more Americans, including 16 million women, worked in the shipyards, aircraft factories and other wartime industrial settings to support those fighters. They too were the heroes of World War II.

“You had these people that didn’t expect to be frontline workers but suddenly are,” said Bakersfield historian Bethany Rice of the Kern County Museum. “So you’ve got your Rosie the Riveter workers that come out and start building these airplanes, and shipyard workers, these factories that have been converted from creating just their everyday cars or something to creating these wartime items.

“That’s much like we have going on today, where we see more people producing these in N-95 masks, and  more ventilators coming out from these kinds of companies, which is really exciting.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, our world changed again when terrorists hijacked and flew commercial jets into Manhattan’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon near Washington D-C. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the Twin Towers, including 412 emergency workers — police, EMTs and firefighters — 343 firefighters.

Today we have a very different set of heroes, some we praise, emotionally and often, and some we may not think much about. Medical personnel — doctors, medical aids and especially nurses, the people of the front lines,  including hundreds of physicians who have come out of retirement — those are the undeniable heroes of the COVID-19 crisis. 

Schools have always played roles that have gone beyond classroom learning in the lives of our children — they’re centers for social development and nutrition as well. Many of us have taken that for granted. Now, in this time of crisis, it becomes much more clear. Teachers are, for millions of families, lifelines.

“This is different now because it’s a different terrain,” said Bakersfield High School government and history teacher Jeremy Adams. “You know, it’s like the battlefield — it’s still the same, it’s the same process of being a soldier, but the battlefield looks totally different now. Yet I’m still supposed to be successful in it. It’s taking a lot of adjustment.

“And frankly, I think it’s heroic how much effort teachers are putting in to make sure that students still feel valued. They’re still getting educated, the same outcome is happening. But we’re having to completely change the way that we do it. “

We’ve had other heroes too. Farmworkers, including thousands here in Kern County, doing the always-challenging work of harvesting the food that feeds the nation — now, as essential workers, under even more challenging circumstances.

“They’re working to make sure that people get fed, make sure we’re all getting nourishment,” said iconic labor leader Dolores Huerta of Bakersfield. “And so I think they should be included when we say, OK, we’re going to thank the doctors and the nurses and, thank God, we are very grateful for the work that they’re doing … 

“But we have one other group that needs to be mentioned. We want to give them our respect, we want to give them our thanks, to all those workers out there.”

From agricultural workers to the vital supply chain: Long and short haul truck drivers, who transport essential goods — made even more essential by the pandemic — are working long, long hours because of the shortage of supplies, and a shortage of other truckers. 

And then there are grocery clerks — yes, grocery clerks — who are providing one of the most basic of services — getting food into the hands of Americans. Grocery store workers come face to face with members of the public daily, hourly, one after another, some of them borderline panicked. That kind of regular contact with the public is hugely risky, but grocery clerks – along with home delivery drivers —  do it because they must — and we need it. 

“It’s been a learning experience for us too, you know, dealing with this type of situation.,” said Chris Vasquez, co-owner of Bakersfield-based Wood-Dale Market. “But people depend on a product like this. It allows us to show exactly who we are, and how we come together as a community. And as a local store that’s been around over 60 years (we’ve observed that) obviously every owner is experiencing something different. This is our time to shine.”

Today in American there are no flying bullets of war, no crumbling buildings. There’s only an insidious, unseen enemy, and people working the frontlines to fight it. Not just doctors and nurses, but people like grocery store workers, truckers, teachers.

They’re the front line for us in this fight and we owe them a debt of gratitude.

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