I never thought that going to the supermarket would bring anxiety. I generally dislike shopping, but I enjoy food markets, especially farmers markets. Partly because I love cooking, partly because I love the liveliness of the marketplace. But, I must admit, before I went the other day I had to muster up some courage.
Interestingly enough I was impressed by the way most people seemed to be treating one another. Many were wearing masks. People smiled, waited patiently for their turn, kept a safe distance and politely stepped aside giving each other plenty of space. Of course, there are always exceptions to this. One young couple burst into the store together when they ask that only one person come in at a time. They proceeded to cough without covering their mouths and violate everyone’s space around them. One of them stood inches from an older lady who had a face mask on. I had a rush of rage, but many of us saw them from a distance and gave them a wide berth.
But the staff at the store were impeccable. These people, mostly very young, but some much older, treated everyone with respect and meticulously sanitized every single cart. They were extraordinarily patient too, especially with elderly customers. I understood in real terms why these people are essential workers. And why they need protection from this virus and deserve far more than a paltry $15 an hour. In this crisis they should have hazard pay, because that is what their job is right now: hazardous. How many workers have fallen ill? How many have died? How many will we never even hear of?
I was careful before and throughout most of my visit to the store, but then the nightmare happened. At the checkout, after an hour of not touching my face, I touched my nose. It happened so fast. And right after I did it, I felt flushed with fear. These are strange times when such an innocent and common action could invoke terror. My mind flashed to my history of asthma. My blood pressure. In my head I counted the days of possible incubation. Would I live with apprehension at every cough, every muscle ache, for the next 14 days? I thought of my elderly mother, and the fear of passing something terrible on to her. And my partner. And my sister. All of whom are in my circle of direct contacts.
I returned home to employ a procedure that the tv detective Monk would have thought excessive. I sanitized every package before bringing it into the house. Then I disrobed just inside the front door, brought my clothes to the washer, and took a shower akin to the kind Karen Silkwood endured after she was exposed to radiation. I am exaggerating a little, of course. But these are the fears many of us live with these days.
I write all of this to highlight the fear that anyone who works directly with the public must feel right now. If I felt a little of it from just one little thoughtless nose rub, imagine how they must feel. How nurses, doctors, respiratory techs, cleaners, lab techs. coroner and funeral staff, laundry staff, transit workers, grocery staff, garbage collectors, pharmacists, etc. must feel. How they must self isolate from family in their own homes. How they must wash their uniforms every single day, and many lacking laundry facilities. And how that same fear is intensified when they lack adequate protection. Aware that they, too, might get it. That they might pass it to another patient if they work in healthcare, or to a co-worker, or to a family member.
The thought humbled me. As a medical social worker I’ve had the privilege of working with some incredible people in healthcare. People with whom I would want by my side should I become ill or if I should be on my way out of this realm, hopefully to the next adventure, without having the benefit of a loved one near to hold my hand when it happens.
But every one who works with the public needs the rest of us to fight for them now. Not just to say thank you or to applaud, but to fight for them to be protected, to have time to see to their own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health and that of their families, to have debt forgiveness and economic compensation for their sacrifices and, if their country lacks it, free universal healthcare and sick pay.
We need them, but they also need us as well to amplify their voices, now more than ever before.
Kenn Orphan April 2020