History professor’s research provides insight into the COVID-19 crisis
Cate Von Dohlen | Friday, September 4, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many issues to light in the media that otherwise lay hidden beneath the surface of current events. Leaders in business, education and other industries have turned to the work of historians to better respond to the effects of the coronavirus.
Department of history professor Joshua Specht researched the history of environmental and economic impacts of the beef industry in the United States.
Specht said his historical research has become more relevant with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on meat packing facilities and production work today, as the CDC reported 16,233 known cases in 239 meat and poultry processing facilities among 23 states as of July 10.
Specht explained how meatpacking facilities are designed and how this has impacted the spread of COVID-19.
“One of the main ways that we get basically affordable meat in large quantities is by designing slaughterhouses for maximum efficiency in terms of output,” Specht said. “If you imagine a factory that’s just making screws or something, everything is the same size and it makes it very easy to use machines. But in a slaughterhouse, you’re much more reliant on people, so there’s a lot less mechanization.”
Specht said this layout means employees in meat processing facilities work in tight conditions that make them prone to the spread of COVID-19.
“What I saw is that the [conditions] that provide cheap meat for us also make slaughterhouses centers of coronavirus risk,” he said.
He also spoke to a number of workers in these meatpacking facilities in doing research.
“Often, the employees in the meatpacking facilities are from so-called vulnerable groups, recent immigrants who might not have a good command of public resources and refugees,” he said.
Specht said these groups are likely to continue working in extenuating circumstances like a pandemic because they are afraid to advocate for their rights.
The application of Specht’s research to working conditions in meatpacking facilities during the coronavirus pandemic has led him to new topics to look into for his research.
“My research has made me particularly interested in a place of agriculture in American history and also American politics,” Specht said. “The pandemic and situations with workers and risks of workers have definitely been something that I’m getting more and more interested in from a research perspective and want to keep in mind.”
He said the dynamics of communities, particularly during the pandemic, also fascinate him from a research perspective. At this time, Specht does not have any undergraduate research assistants, yet he said he is looking forward to working with student research assistants in the future. In the future, he will teach a history of food class, along with a class on the history of the American West.
Specht encouraged Notre Dame campus community members to remember that some of the people who are most vulnerable are staff members and employees.
“To the extent that we’re all in it together –– the students, the faculty, the administration –– that’s also to protect people in the community and employees,” Specht said.