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Tina Casey headshot

COVID-19 Imposes a Life-and-Death Test for Corporate Citizens

By Tina Casey

As Dr. Anthony Fauci made clear in his public testimony before Congress on Tuesday, states that ignore federal COVID-19 reopening guidelines risk triggering uncontrolled outbreaks of the deadly virus. That concern is especially evident on Native American tribal lands, where public health resources are already stretched thin. As demonstrated by the situation in South Dakota, the premature re-opening issue is also fraught with challenges for corporations that are trying to establish a firm record on social responsibility if their host states pursue a seat-of-the-pants policy on COVID-19.

South Dakota never closed for COVID-19

In regards to corporate social responsibility under COVID-19, South Dakota has become noteworthy due to Republican Gov. Kristi Noem’s refusal to issue a stay-at-home order.

Noem has not backed down, even though a major employer in the state — the meatpacking industry — has seen some of the worst outbreaks.

In mid-April, months after the lethal impact of COVID-19 became evident, a Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls won the dubious distinction as the “nation’s top coronavirus hotspot” at the time. By May 11, Business Insider reported that hundreds of workers at the Smithfield plant were diagnosed with COVID-19, and two have died.

Business Insider further reported that both Noem and a representative from Smithfield have publicly blamed the outbreaks on workers’ home life, implying that employees failed to voluntarily observe social distancing in their communities. The expert consensus, though, is that working conditions make major meatpacking plants particularly vulnerable to outbreaks.

Native Americans in South Dakota take control of COVID-19 narrative

The victim-blaming narrative articulated by Noem and Smithfield is reflected in the situation on tribal lands in the U.S. Native American communities that have been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis, but failure to observe social distancing is not the heart of the problem.

In fact, some Native American communities have gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent COVID-19 transmission, even within states that are not following federal guidelines.

South Dakota is a case in point. One key action took place during the first week of April, when the Rosebud Sioux Tribes and the Fort Belknap Indian Community joined a lawsuit to stop construction of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. They argued that an influx of outside workers could spread COVID-19.

On April 15, a federal judge issued a ruling that effectively put the Keystone XL project on hold over an environmental review issue. That ruling is still in place as of this writing.

In a broader move, in April several Native American communities in South Dakota established COVID-19 checkpoints along public roadways, including at the Sioux Cheyenne River, Pine Ridge and Standing Rock reservations. Journalist Bob Mercer detailed the efforts in a long-form report for Keloland News.

Though the checkpoints have been characterized as roadblocks, Cheyenne River Tribal Chairman Harold T. Frazier has pushed back against that description. In an April 26 letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs cited by Mercer, Chairman Frazier listed the legal justifications for establishing checkpoints.

“We are simply regulating travelers’ entry onto the Reservation in an attempt to prevent, reduce, and track the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus here in the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation,” he explained.

Islands in a sea of uncertainty

By May 11, the South Dakota tribes were embroiled in a legal standoff with Noem, who has threatened legal action this week to remove the checkpoints. So far, the tribes have held firm. "We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death,” said Frazier in a statement.

That is as much a challenge to the business community as it is a defense of the checkpoints. Smithfield, for one, has found itself struggling to reassure workers that it is safe to return. Though Smithfield has disowned the victim-blaming comments attributed to a company representative, Noem’s remarks (first reported by Buzzfeed News on April 20) continue to muddy the waters.

Adding fuel to the fire, last week Politico reported that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was still trafficking in victim-blaming, attributing COVID-19 hotspots in the meatpacking industry to “‘home and social’ aspects of workers' lives rather than the conditions inside the facilities.”

Another state to watch is Georgia, which appears to be fulfilling Dr. Fauci’s warning about prematurely opening for business. In an echo of the situation faced by Native American communities, part of Georgia’s problem appears to be an increase in traffic from neighboring states.

If companies in any industry are serious about their responsibility to protect workers and their communities, they could take a cue from the response of Native American communities and lobby their hosts states more aggressively to support a coordinated federal policy based on sound science.

Image credit: South Dakota Bureau of Administration

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey