Essential Workers Courageously Cope With COVID-19

By Mike O’Cull

Music, like just about everything else in the world, has been profoundly affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While clubs and venues are shut down, some in our American music community have been given the dubious honor of being declared essential workers and have been risking their lives by simply going to their day jobs and keeping the lights on for the rest of us.

Zach and Rebecca Wager of industrial metal band Dead Animal Assembly Plant are two such individuals. Not only do they share a band but both work in the medical field and are also a married couple. This combination of factors gives them a unique perspective on the pandemic and the toll it has taken on both the creative and professional worlds.

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Zach is a QA Analyst for a medical billing clearinghouse/ electronic medical records company. He processes insurance claims and handles practice management, doing everything from appointment scheduling to prescribing medication. Rebecca is the kitchen manager at a post-acute rehabilitation facility that works with high-risk patients who are recovering from surgery. She also works also in the facility’s laundry service. Prior to this, she worked in hospitals sanitizing operating rooms.

Their band, Dead Animal Assembly Plant, has been grinding out gritty industrial metal since 2007. Zach sings, writes the lyrics, and does all of the production, mixing, and mastering while Rebecca plays guitar and does the group’s artwork. “I was in a friend’s band and we were working on an album together,” Zach explains, “I had all these ideas conceptually that just didn’t really jive with the direction that he wanted for his project. So initially it started as an outlet for me to develop these themes and song ideas. When we moved from a solo project to a collaborative band, it started to really become something more.”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically impacted their musical life, both Zach and Rebecca have seen little change in their work days. “I’ve been able to work from home as well as the office with a limited capacity , mask requirements, and daily temperature checks,” Zach said, “The band…this year really derailed our momentum from last year. In 2019, we embarked on our longest tour: six weeks, coast-to-coast. It was such a crazy adventure and to come off that high to now not being able to play shows has been tough.” “Things haven’t changed much really,” Rebecca adds,”Still working, though it has given me more time to explore other forms of art and creativity and build skills in those areas.”

The stress of simultaneously working in the medical field and running a band has increased because of the virus, Zach reports. “As a smaller band, the need to push and stay relevant is daunting but with everything that’s happening it feels trivial,” he said, “It almost feels a little selfish to shamelessly promote in the face of it all.”

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In terms of infection risk, Rebecca faces a higher probability of COVID exposure due to the hands-on nature of her job. “Unfortunately for me, we have had several COVID cases at my facility, but we get tested regularly and have been taking the proper precautions to prevent further infection.” This adds even more stress to both musicians’ lives. She also admits that her co-workers are feeling the pandemic strain and that “everyone is usually stressed out all the time.”

Both Zach and Rebecca have friends and/or family members who have come down with the virus. They’ve seen firsthand just how dangerous COVID can be and understand that it can hit people from all walks of life. “My mother caught it from her job,” Rebecca said, “She works for a mental institution for the criminally insane. She got a really severe case of it and it really scared the hell out of me and my family.

We thought we were going to lose her but, thankfully, she made a full recovery and is doing well now.” Zach’s sister is a nurse and works in COVID clinics and he fears for her safety every day. “Despite the painstaking measures they take, you just never know and she has seen patients die from it,” he said, “This isn’t a joke or a conspiracy. A virus isn’t affected by your feelings or opinions about it. It doesn’t have a religious or political affiliation. It has one purpose: to infect a host and propagate.”

As you might expect, thoughts of relief haven’t been easy to come by. “No one truly knows when things will go back to normal and this national cabin fever is only going to make things worse,” Zach said, “So if the collective WE wants to see relief or some balance, we need to do our due diligence and not let our own selfish, personal desires usurp the greater good.”

Rebecca adds “I’d like to think there is relief in the future, if only some people would take this situation more seriously and actually be more mindful and considerate and not contribute to the problem of prolonging this further.”

Still, they are well aware that they’re among the more fortunate Americans in 2020. “We aren’t rolling in the dough, that’s for sure, but we have been very lucky that our jobs have not been affected by the pandemic. We have the typical financial stresses of the shrinking middle class, yet, I can’t complain. We are safe, healthy, have food on the table, and a roof over our heads,” Zach said.

Yet, he remains gravely concerned about the future. “Looking at all of human history, we have never been that concerned with other people, just how things affect us, you hear it in all the rhetoric. You have those in “leadership” positions reinforcing this selfish myopathy and the availability for literally everyone to have a platform to espouse their bent ideologies and you create an echo chamber of ignorance that adds fire to the fear.

From the onset, people were downplaying the severity…the whole “well it hasn’t happened to me therefore it’s not important” attitude is the real disease. Once we cure that, maybe we can get the pandemic under control but I’m not holding my breath.”

Mike O’Cull

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This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.

It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.


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