At the start of March 2020, the UK had 87 confirmed Coronavirus cases and the numbers were increasing quickly. By March 5th, it had claimed its first UK fatality; a woman in her 70’s not named due to patient confidentiality.
It was official.
The pandemic was upon us.
Only ten days later – with over 1,000 confirmed cases and a further 21 people dead – the British Government introduced the concept of ‘social distancing.’ The public was advised to avoid contact with those who showed symptoms of the virus, to isolate if they themselves had symptoms, and to work from home whenever possible.
The Chief Science Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, was quoted as saying that a ‘good’ eventual outcome for the UK would be a death toll under 20,000 people.
And that would be a success…
If 20,000 people died in any other single event it would be a catastrophe.
STAY AT HOME, SAVE LIVES!
That was the new mantra.
The virus was spreading. The vast majority of the public were now social distancing, working from home, and self-isolating.
But not me.
Not my colleagues.
We were newly annointed ‘key’ workers. We went from ‘unskilled’ to ‘essential’ in the blink of an eye, with no increase in pay or benefits….And suddenly we found ourselves in the unenviable position of having to choose between our lives and our livelihood.
Panic buying was in full swing. Shelves were stripped bare. As the supply chain struggled to cope, more and more shoppers arrived to stock up. This meant potentially higher rates of exposure for us. I might have been heady with the newfound power and status of being deemed ‘essential ‘ had I not been so apprehensive about my prospects. Self-confidence took a back seat to vulnerability.
And while my friends and I were being hailed as unsung heroes – with a few even embracing the glory and excitement – I was highly conscious of the fact that none of us had volunteered for this new honour. We were conscripted.
For a minimal hourly wage.
My workplace is a diverse one in terms of age. We have young people still in school, people close to retirement, and everyone in between. It was no coincidence that many of those most at ease with continuing to work were also younger and healthier than the rest of us. They believed their risk was low. They were playing the odds.
Youth and health affords you a degree of arrogance with respect to mortality. You think you are the exception to the rule, that you are, to a degree, indestructible. And when you are being told that the new ‘killer virus’ seems to affect primarily those who are older and/or have health issues, you can be forgiven for assuming you are immune to the danger.
But that was not the point.
My own past viral experience had left me with one positive gift – vigilance. So when Corovirus hit, part of me was mentally ready.
I was already mindful of germs. I knew I was suseptable to any bug that came near me. And I was already wearing gloves. I had been, ever since I returned to work after my recovery.
Gloves at that time were a bit unusual. But I had reason to be cautious. After all, I handled raw chicken, other uncooked poultry, fish, and meats all day long. That was reason enough.
But unfortunately, there were other factors too.
Shoppers can be surprisingly ignorant or simply distracted when it comes to hygiene in a shop setting. Most just have a dozen other things on their minds at the time, and are rushing to finish their errands.
Others…well, they’re another story.
Many retail customers need a helping hand from time to time, which we are only too happy to provide. Its not unusual for people to hand us used tissues to put in the garbage for them, or left over food, gum, broken jars or damaged containers. Those are the thoughtful ones, and none of my co-workers or I would ever object to this, provided it was done with courtesy.
But some folks view shop workers as their own personal attendants. They purposely leave their refuse behind without a second thought as to who has to clean it up or how. And if challenged, these people will usually respond with, ‘That’s your job,’ in a deliberately demeaning tone intended to remind the shop worker of their place.
The sense of entitlement that whafts through the air in the wake of these assholes is suffocating…
I have seen some stunning lapses in behaviour over the course of my retail experience. I could tell you some shocking stories, but you already have enough to worry about. But they happen. More often than you’d think…
Fortunately that type of shopper is not a regular occurrence. All the same, I have had people cough in my face as if I wasnt even there – without bothering to cover their mouths or apologise afterwards.
I’ve had people lick their fingers before pulling money out to pay me, and people hold their loyalty cards in their mouths while fishing for change, only to then hand me that same card to scan. I am not unique in this. These sorts of things happen to my co-workers as well.
We also handle cash all day, which is one of the filthiest common objects out there and a simple and prolific way to spread germs.
So really, when you take all this into account, it seems silly not to wear gloves. Like, ALL the time!
But in the time of Coronavirus, all the unintentional, innocuous, or deliberate lapses in public hygiene became much more sinister.
Having customers cough and sneeze in my face with Covid-19 lurking around was a potential threat. Likewise having to pick up someone’s used and discarded tissue, or touch their money after they’ve coughed into their hand and then passed it to me.
And no matter how many warnings, horrifying footage, or news bulletins appeared in the media, I would inevitably come across at least one moron who laughed off the danger with a wave. In fact, there were far too many of those walking around….
One of my co-workers illustrated this fact perfectly. She was working upstairs in ladies fashions when a customer approached the till point with an item of clothing.
By this time, due to the risk of infection, our fitting rooms had all been closed and we were not accepting returns. The virus was decimating Italy, and had spread to Spain, France and Germany. Now it had arrived in the UK and Ireland and cases were rising fast. Covid-19 was here.
The British Government had finally been roused from its complacency, and was telling people who had returned from other affected countries that they should self-isolate for a period of 14 days before coming into contact with anyone locally.
….the customer who approached my colleague had the audacity to tell my friend she had just flown back from Spain.
My friend was rightly alarmed by this. She stepped back a bit and asked the woman why she was not self-isolating.
The customer shrugged her off with a laugh. She then admitted to my friend that a few people on her flight had actually tested positive, but that she was not worried at all.
She wouldn’t get it, she told my colleague, and if she did she’d be fine.
My friend was justifiably furious. She is the mother of two young children and has parents with underlying health conditions.
‘It’s not just about you,’ she told the woman pointedly, ‘lt’s about the people around you! The people you come in contact with, especially those who might be vulnerable. You could be spreading it and making other people sick.’
The woman just laughed, took her purchase and left.
She actually laughed.
‘I wanted to throttle her,’ my friend told me later, ‘how selfish and stupid. And she’s bragging about it, and laughing like its a joke!’
Humans are stupid. Humans are self-centered. Humans are oblivious. And some humans are just assholes.
We had to serve all of them.
There’s a reason the word ‘Covidiot’ was coined….
And this of course, is the problem with a highly-contagious, potentially lethal, pathogen.
Its spread can only be contained if everyone takes the same precautions. If everyone is vigilant. And if everyone takes it seriously. You really do rely on the common sense of the person next to you.
We are all doomed.