Phill Courtney

In reaction to my April column about the runs I’ve taken through downtown Redlands and the various sights I’ve seen when so many businesses are experiencing those “viral vacancies,” some readers told me that they were struck by the irony that a liquor store and a vaping shop were still open — “essential” services in this pandemic period.

The ironies just keep coming, so many in fact since this pandemic began perhaps we’ll look back on it as “The Irony Age.”

For instance, there was this one that came on immediately as the virus took off: in what is not only the world’s wealthiest nation, but the wealthiest nation in world history, we saw our front-line health workers resorting to garbage bags to ward off the bug. Irony, if not bags, doesn’t get much thicker than that.

But I’d been thinking about such ironies long before this pandemic began. The only difference now is the way this disease has forced all of us to focus on some of those issues.

Perhaps one of the most contentious has been the debate about just who and who isn’t doing work that’s “essential.” Of course, there’s been no debate about our era’s genuine heroes mentioned above, those health workers risking their lives (and sometimes losing them) as they struggle under those garbage bags, while lacking other basic equipment they need.

Here’s another irony about “essential” workers that I’ve been thinking about for years: people who do what seems to me to be the most important work in our culture get paid the least money by far, while the ones who do the least important work get paid the most.

Think about it. Some of the lowest paid workers include those on our farms picking the crops we all eat, people caring for the elderly and turning them over before bedsores develop, people teaching children in daycare facilities and those who do intense and unrelenting work helping adults with developmental disabilities — all low-paid positions. Studies show many of those workers have no more than $400 in savings to meet an emergency.

Conversely, think about all the people who’ve become rich doing work that’s not needed at all, such as those particular talented at putting balls through metal hoops or into holes in the ground or those who can sing well or move money on Wall Street — all making far more money than the workers we actually need.

And then there’s all that “essential” work that’s not getting done.

As I run, I see sidewalks and streets crying out for repair — crumbling bridges and curbsides, mounds of litter and weeds in need of disposing.

Perhaps, as some have suggested, instead of one standalone check that won’t last much longer than a trip to the box store, why not a nationwide program that puts those idled back to work on some of the tasks that for years were neglected with enough compensation to make a difference in millions of lives?

Finally, although it may strike some as hopelessly optimistic, perhaps this pandemic will result in a sense of renewed appreciation for the work that’s actually “essential” and genuine financial rewards for those who are doing it.

Phill Courtney was a high school English teacher and twice ran for Congress with the Green Party. His email is: