The coronavirus outbreak has brought into stark relief the importance of the many low-paid and often under-appreciated workers who prop our food supply chain, and nowhere more so than in northern Italy.
Frontline healthcare workers are genuine heroes during this pandemic, but praise should also be given to the ordinary workers, who risk their health and lives so that you have enough to eat.
With the news of a 48-year-old cashier dying of COVID19 in Brescia, it reminded us of the risk these people are taking just to ensure the supermarket shelves are fully stocked.
In the northern Italian region of Lombardy, the epicenter of the Coronavirus outbreak and the part of the world that has experienced the most fatalities from the disease, anywhere in the world, there is a state of emergency. The region has been on full lockdown for two weeks and every day brings more harrowing images from inside hospital ICUs where patents battle for their lives.
There is a palpable sense of fear and foreboding, which can be felt on the ghostly, empty streets when you exit your apartment to make your way to the supermarket for supplies. Inevitably, you meet a queue of some 20 people ahead of you waiting to gain access to the store and you’ll have to spend a very surreal half-hour, standing two metres distance from your fellow shoppers, before being called by the security guard to enter. For most people it’s the only contact they have with the outside world, but for the people who work there, it's a new normal.
Enrica Tremolada is a supermarket cashier In Lombardy, for Esselunga, one of the county’s biggest food retailers, who has been continuing to go to work as normal despite the fraught atmosphere.
“We’re having to work many more hours than usual because we are down in terms of personnel,” she says. “Many colleagues have chosen to stay at home because they might have health problems, while a good percentage have stayed at home because they are afraid.”
There are those, who have a sense of duty and therefore feel it falls on them to work even harder in a time like this. If not for them, we could very quickly see the supply chain start to break down, which would have unimaginable consequences. For now, these heroic people are holding the chain together, each one of them.
“There are quite a few who are off sick,” says Enrica. “So those who don’t have those problems, such as myself, we have to compensate by working more. In this situation, as the danger grows so does the alarm of people, also amongst my colleagues.”
While the supermarkets themselves recognise the necessity of keeping their workers coming in every day, they also have to balance their needs with those employees who can’t.
“The company has been quite understanding. I can’t say what the situation is for people who have taken holidays, but for those with serious problems, we have someone who has had a kidney transplant and has just one kidney, for example, they’re staying at home.”
And of course, with schools closed, that means there are children to be supervised at home.
“Also for those who have children and need to stay home with them, they are able to take parental leave or unpaid leave, or partially paid leave depending on the age of the children.”
We hear that the frontline is the Intensive Care Units of hospitals, but after health care workers, it is probably supermarket workers who are the most exposed to the virus. Unfortunately, there are only some very basic precautions that are being taken.
“The company has supplied us with hygienic supplies, masks, and hand sanitizer. We take our temperatures every morning and if it’s over 36.5, it’s better that you stay at home,” says Tremolada. “Also from this week we’ve been supplied with Plexiglas barriers so we can keep the right distance between ourselves and between us and the customers. We open every second till, so we're not working right next to each other. “
In this time of crisis, you would assume that people become much more understanding and compassionate to each other, however, everyone is under stress in this situation. People are cooped up for weeks, some with a greater sense of urgency than others. Some don’t behave well.
“There are always some customers who don’t behave well and it’s the same now. There are always those who try and take advantage. Some try and skip the queues, stockpile items, all the things you’ve probably seen on social media. I arrive at work at 8 am and there is usually a queue of 20 or 30 people trying to get in and shop before stocks go down. There are some customers who come to the supermarket every day. There’s nothing you can do except bring it to their attention.”
Tensions are running high and sometimes it’s the supermarket workers who get the brunt of it.
“Some customers will have to queue for 30 or 40 minutes if not more and so when they do get in they take their time going around the supermarket. They don’t realize that you have to speed up your shopping, get around, pay and get out as quickly as possible to minimize the risk of contamination,” says Enrica.
“We have put limits on non-essential items, like house plants, for example, things that aren’t food, but you find people who can’t understand it, like a teacher, who needs stationary, or a mother, who needs school supplies for her children".
“The police have given us clear instructions, so if people are questioning the situation I just have to tell them, it’s as if you see a red traffic light. You have to stop. You can break it but if you do, you can cause an accident or get a fine at the very least. We can only advise people if they insist on purchasing non-essential items and they are stopped by the police, they risk getting fined".
There is a strict rule that you can only go shopping alone, without family members, children or partners. It’s one person in and one person out in most retailers. You do see some people, however, trying to flout those rules.
“Some people get angry that they can’t enter as a couple and the shopping together, so you see them take two trolleys and pretend to be single shoppers. So they have one trolley full of water, the other full of food items and when they exit, of course, other people see them and they get angry.
“Last night I got home at 10 pm. We close the store at 9, but at ten-to-nine, people are still entering the store to do their shopping.
“These are strange times, so every day you see something unexpected. Today, there was a customer, who, as well as a mask, was wearing a transparent shower cap. I’ve seen people wearing the protective masks that gardeners wear, people wearing garbage bags with holes cut for their heads and arms, people dressed as they were in Chernobyl, you see everything.
“We just have to be very, very patient, as we always do, but doubly so now. The most important thing now is to keep people safe, so we are doing our best.”