Editorial: Pandemic’s mental toll falls heavily on humble shoulders

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Grocery store clerks have always been among the most essential of workers, although very rarely recognized as such. While doctors, nurses, paramedics and personal support workers (albeit the latter only recently as their numbers dwindled in the face of an aging baby boom) were readily recognized as essential workers (along with the police and firefighters) during calmer pre-COVID-19 days—and the acclaim of those on the firing line of the health services have risen even higher on the pedestal of public esteem since—it is those who keep the grocery store shelves stocked upon whom some of the heaviest mental burdens have fallen.

Health professionals deserve the countless accolades that pour down upon them as they gird themselves for the coming tide of nigh onto invisible foes, but that is arguably something that they signed up and are trained for, and with the notable exception of PSWs the renumeration of those professions reflect that esteem. Health professionals now conduct most of their interactions with the public via digital technology, separated from most of the public by a digital chasm that COVID-19 cannot span.

But consider the plight of the grocery store clerk. Going to work each day to face literally hundreds, if not thousands, of customers—each one a potentially loaded cylinder in a daily and deadly game of Russian roulette. That strain alone must be monumental. Most other essential workers deal with a much-reduced number of people during this modern plague—truck drivers lead a largely isolated existence even in normal times, newspaper reporters now do their work by telephone and telephoto lens. Not so the grocery store clerk. They wander the aisles, filling the shelves with that which each of us needs to sustain life, while countless customers pass them by, often within mere inches, even as they usually maintain a proper distance from other customers.

The volume of customers now processing through, even with the limits being placed on the numbers allowed to enter the store, is relentless. Largely in part because so many customers are forgoing their off-Island expeditions in favour of shopping local.

Add to this the mental stress of having to smile through those thin plexiglass shields, only recently installed to protect the cashiers, while a customer they do not recognize (despite sometimes decades of working the cash at the local grocery store) piles frivolous purchases on the conveyor while complaining bitterly about the lack of toilet paper to be found on the shelves and the bounty that awaits in the fabled promised lands that lie across the swing bridge once the danger subsides.

It is utterly remarkable how rarely these ordinary and yet oh-so-incredible people, many of them very young, cracks and snaps back. But if one observes closely during the exchange, many of those smiles are brittle, the eyes darting with furtive nervousness, hands that reach out with the grocery bag filled with Doritos quivering ever-so-slightly. The strain is there to see for those who care to look.

Only during a major global war are so many very ordinary remarkable people called to serve on the front-lines, standing stoically in our defence as each day they must face down their fears, fears for themselves, fears for the loved ones they return to after each shift, so that we may continue to feed our own families and loved ones.

While those who travel to the grocery store bring along those same fears, we can limit our trips into the danger zone and are meeting a mere handful of the people with whom the grocery store clerk must interact closely with each and every hour. The grocery clerk stands in that zone every day for hours on end. How must our own concerns be magnified for them?

So, as you make your (hopefully rare) trips to our local grocery stores, please make an effort to be just a little more courteous and respectful, a little more understanding of those people who are manning the trenches on your behalf. Every day they must dodge potential bullets for you and your loved ones, placing their own families at risk for you and yours.

Most of us can effectively practice physical distancing and keep our personal interactions to a minimum, the front-line workers of your local grocery stores must face a very different reality, so please be kind. They deserve it.