When the Oxford Dictionary chooses its word of the year for 2020, “essential” will be a strong contender, as the label for the service providers we couldn’t function without during the COVID-19 pandemic:
· First responders, nurses, doctors and other hospital workers.
· Grocery store stockers, cashiers and baggers.
· And of course, truck drivers.
The last time I remember reading about “essential workers” or “essential services” was in 2018 when the federal government shut down for 35 days during congressional budget negotiations. When “essential” refers to folks like State Department and military personnel, the impact on the rest of us seems far removed. But when the word describes people who ensure our access to food and intensive care unit supplies, the phrase becomes more personal.
Widespread stay-home directives have significantly thinned the number of daily commuters, leaving big rigs and delivery vans as a more prominent share of vehicles on the road. And their more noticeable presence serves to underscore the vital role they’re playing as they move more than 10 billion tons of goods annually — nearly three-fourths of all freight tonnage in the U.S.
Glamorous work, it is not — one reason why the U.S. routinely has a shortage of truck drivers, which could exceed 100,000 in the next few years. And COVID-19 is exacerbating the problem.
With consumer demand rising for a wide array of products and supply chains shifting from commercial and industrial users to retail customers, the pressure intensifies for the drivers on the road. They run the risk of contracting the very illness that’s demanded their heightened commitment and longer workdays. That peril of exposure is magnified by how they’re twice as likely as the average working American to lack health insurance. Even the mundane task of dining on the road becomes daunting as restaurants have closed or cannot offer drive-through services to trucks much larger than even the biggest Texas pickup.
Even so, drivers endure grueling schedules to connect vital commodities with the people who need them. Like the health care professionals risking personal safety tending to patients fighting to stay alive, truckers are working selflessly to sustain an economy on life support.
As nervous, face-masked shoppers venture in search of everything from disinfecting wipes to canned soup, efforts to quell their anxieties are powered by trucks on rural interstates and local roadways. The significance of their work, heretofore largely hidden, is now vividly revealed by a public health crisis and resulting supply chain disruption that few people saw coming. Much of our planning for disruptive events focuses on local or regional natural disasters, like a hurricane that cripples seaport operations or flooding that severs highway and rail passage. But we can’t compare this pandemic to a Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Harvey, because our current disturbance is not about the condition of our infrastructure but about how it is being used.
Recovery time, also, is dramatically different. In a storm disaster, the damage comes suddenly and then it’s over, leaving everyone to focus on recovery almost immediately. But in our current public health crisis and associated economic losses, we’ll be absorbing damage for some time even as we attempt to focus on or try to define recovery.
We’re in a protracted fight, not a swift battle. Those behind the wheel of these trucks, the technicians keeping the trucks running and those in truck stops serving the drivers are all central to our survival and recovery.
Living through this time is teaching us a lot about what’s vital and necessary to our daily existence, about what really is “essential.” For a time, we can live without the summer blockbuster matinee, Sunday morning in a pew, happy hours with our friends, bicep curls or half frog poses at the gym. We can even live without routine checkups at our doctor’s office. Virtual delivery of many of those experiences may be lacking in certain regards, but they get the job done.
But some things can’t be livestreamed. Certain life necessities require the transport of actual things — food, medical supplies, and yes, toilet paper. Things that have to be hauled from where they’re made to where people need them.
Somebody has to deliver them. Godspeed to those who do.
Allan Rutter leads the freight and investment analysis division at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, and he is a former administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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