Studying, stockpiling and social distancing

Whenever people ask me how my experience of supermarket work during a pandemic has been, my standard answer is ‘interesting’, simply because I do not think I would have time to explain it fully. One minute, I am being applauded and told how brave I am for being a ‘key worker’, the next I am being sneered at because we do not have eggs/flour/toilet roll/whatever product people are bulk-buying this week. With millions expected to be furloughed, or lose their jobs altogether, due to Covid-19, including some close friends and family, I am hyper-aware that I am seriously lucky to be working at all. However, it has definitely not been easy.

Anyone who has ever worked in retail will tell you that it is never the friendly, polite customers who you remember. I have been lucky in that I have not experienced many true horror stories, just the occasional passive aggressive comment about how our lack of stock ‘is not good enough’, and a few customers who thinks it is acceptable in the midst of a literal pandemic to lick their fingers to grab a ten pound note (it is not) or reel off the list of symptoms they have had for the last few days (please do not do this). My personal favourite was a woman who told me that the entire situation was the animals giving humans a taste of their own medicine for the way they have been treated over the years, whilst passing me five kinds of dairy product from her basket to scan and bag, and asking my manager if we had any chicken out in the back- make of that what you will.

Having said this, the crisis has absolutely brought out the best in the vast majority of people. Customers are incredibly supportive of what we do, and we have had chocolates and cards left in the break room to prove it. I have worked in retail for almost a year and I have never been thanked simply for doing my job as much as I have in the last four weeks. Please do not get me wrong, I appreciate people being nice and seeing the value of what we do, but I can not help feeling guilty when people describe me as a ‘key worker’. Whilst according to the Government’s definition, it is the truth, there is a sense of imposter syndrome which comes along with it: I do not put my life at risk to save others like anyone working in the NHS or social care system, or any of the other people who I would consider key workers. I just stack shelves and scan people’s groceries, exactly the same as I did before, and I have found it quite difficult to adjust to these changed perceptions. 

Things which were completely alien concepts when I first came home from university and went back to work have become part of the ‘new normal’: staying 2 metres away from people has become second nature, and I have finally embraced face masks and the other PPE we have been given, after being told I look like an extra in Grey’s Anatomy. The other challenge, which I have not been doing so well with, is fitting in my degree around this. Self-motivation has never exactly been my strong point (hence why I am writing this instead of doing any of my actual assignments), let alone when I am fitting in short bursts of writing and research around shifts, and only attending lectures and seminars from my bed. However, online learning does give me the opportunity to catch up on sessions I have missed when I have been on shifts, which is a positive, and allows me to be a bit more flexible with when and how I study. With any luck this will become a part of the ‘new normal’ too. 

I am interested to see whether this newfound respect for ‘key workers’ is maintained after this crisis is over. Will we continue to respect medical professionals, retail workers, carers, delivery drivers and fruit pickers, or will society revert to its mindless worship of celebrities and footballers as soon as there is less to worry about? I am not optimistic, but people can sometimes surprise us, so we will have to wait and see. 

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Emily Kelly

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December 2021
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The University of East Anglia’s official student newspaper. Concrete is in print and online.

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