I have always found the game of chess to be fascinating. Not only because of the strategy involved in mastering the game, nor the tales of legends like Bobby Fischer and other grandmasters. No, it is the metaphorical angle that chess seems to hold in life and in war. We’ve all heard the line before that something being planned is “like a game of chess”. Life is chess, war is chess, politics is chess, and of course business is chess. It is common to think about the kings and queens of the game as part of the overall strategy. Yet, what seems to be left out when making these sweeping metaphors is the role of the pawn in the overall game. An important cog in life that is often overlooked and underappreciated. I would like to take some time to talk about the pawns of real life.
We are living in dangerous times currently with the persistent spreading of the Coronavirus or COVID-19 strain of the flu, an illness that has originated in the Wuhan region of China. A particularly nasty strain of the flu that has made its conquest from China, ravaged Europe, and now has made its way to cause panic and destruction in the United States. As a result, this week the United States government declared a national state of emergency and COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic. But as I said, I am here to talk about pawns.
In the midst of this outbreak, many things have been suspended. Sports leagues have stopped completely, schools have shut down for at least a month, and many workers are being told to work from home. Self-quarantine and social distancing are terms being used by people to encourage the limiting of the viruses spread. Yet in all this the pawns in this situation, the frontline workers, are being treated as disposable and expendable. A group of people that those in positions of power and leadership will always say are front of mind, yet in a time of crisis that love and moral support is nowhere to be found. Merely words on a corporate sounding email that really have no substance.
If you have ever seen a CEO of a tech company or retailer address their field teams, this is common practice. They will get on stage in front of people that they employ but will never speak to if possible. Talking about company culture and how their company is different than other companies. That they actually care, that you the entry level public facing worker are appreciated. Yet, when it is time to react to a crisis who are the first people that are considered? Engineers, developers, marketing executives, and so on. Why? Because these are the people that help contribute to the overall health of the brand. A front line worker can be replaced easily in their eyes. A crisis like this has shown that there are valuations placed on the low level employee that is in the face of the general public versus the higher level employees in a company. After all, this is chess and not checkers.
The way that we as a collective society have been treating people that work at restaurants, retail stores, and grocery stores in the immediate reaction to the spread of COVID-19 shows that the subliminal reach of this mentality is wide ranging. People have shown their true selfish and greedy nature by bullying their way into bulk buying toilet paper and canned goods while hating their fellow man and internally judging those that are just trying to get through a shift at work without getting infected. These same people will come home from their panic bulk shopping and go on social media to lament people’s treatment of workers at these establishments. The consistency of it all is nowhere to be found. In that regard, there is really no surprise that higher level executives and CEOs feel the way they do about the lower level employee, since we as a society look down on them as well.
In this crisis, there has been much made about limiting outdoor exposure and avoiding crowds. These recommendations apparently only hold weight to people that do not have to work in these types of conditions on a regular basis. And while the notion of shutting down grocery stores and retail establishments when people need to buy items for a self quarantine is foolish, there are better ways to go about it. For starters, there needs to be a limit of people in a store at one time and also items per household limits as well. These two simple measures would at the same time limit the exposure of potential virus spreading to these employees and also would allow all people to get the essential goods they need without having to worry about one person stocking up on canned goods and Ramen noodles for 30 years.
Despite all of the chaos that has been occurring over the past few months on a global scale it would appear that the companies we seem to love and adore will always only care about profitability. Telling front-line workers to maximize on the panic and up-sell other items so that the company can remain as profitable as possible, all the while giving no reassurances to these employees that they will be taken care of in the case of a widespread national lock down. These people have to ponder the very real possibility of not going to work and not getting sick paid leave. A very large portion of the country is living paycheck to paycheck and a good portion of these people are being the most exposed by having to work in these times of panic.
All of this is a consequence of the economic valuation of everything at all times in this world. Eventually, there will be assistance given to frontline workers, but the message has been clear that they are more expendable than others. More replaceable than others.That these companies will milk the labor from these people for as long as it is acceptable until the government intervenes and says that the doors need to be closed for everyone’s safety. If any frontline worker was to complain about this, society’s response would be what it always is. That the worker should have made better choices and got a degree in something so that there could have been an opportunity to work from home.
This is a problem with us as a Western society where we are so individualistic that we belittle one another to justify the rationale of brands and people in power. It is a toxic trait that we engage in here in the United States as well as in some European countries. There is no sense of community, only a sense of profit and self preservation. This is the whole crux of the modern American vision. To look out for oneself all the while kicking down the next person in the pursuit of advancing. It is the ultimate form of social Darwinism. The irony of all of this is that a virus like COVID-19 doesn’t care about power or status.
This virus has shown us something about our society that we may have suspected but has now been confirmed. That individualism and narcissism is our affliction and this was just fully exposed. Companies will ultimately do what is best for the bottom line and only the bottom line. The humanizing of companies has proven to be a fool’s errand. We are in the middle of a crisis, a time where compassion and togetherness needs to be front of mind. This starts by treating our neighbors with respect regardless of their profession with a realization that we are all trying to get to the light at the end of this very dark and ominous tunnel. For once, let us look outside of our natural instinct of self preservation, and preserve our society. Let us not lose all of our pawns over delusions of potential checkmates.