Notes From a Grocery Clerk During COVID-19 Panic

Editor's Note:

For so many not working is not an option even during a worldwide pandemic. Here's one grocery worker's thoughts on the panic, and how the crisis should radicalize us into practicing something better.

work at a grocery store. I stock, serve, and sell in a mindless robotic manner for 8 hours a day. It's basically your run of the mill useless unskilled labor position, and it sucks like most of 'em. You know it sucks, and you know it could be worse or better, but amidst both possibilities, it still sucks.

These past weeks the panic over the COVID-19 pandemic has reached a fever pitch. The shelves at my store have been picked over so much it looks like Ross after a memorial day sale. Emptiness and panic is the general atmosphere. Yet with all that, the store goes from frenzy to relatively empty save for the scurrying Instacart shoppers who are still working in spite of warnings. And The few panic-stricken folks with mountains of shelf-stable products. I the unskilled laborer scooping product who cannot stay home because:

1- the world demands I make money, not necessarily for me but someone, and

2- this crisis is an opportunity for immense profit for the shadowy owners who I never see or have met.

"Do they know its the end of the world?" a customer said to me jokingly as I was stocking in regards to the Instacart shoppers. Apparently, all the poor people don't know it’s the end of the world. I thought about it in light of climate crisis refugees and people most affected by natural disasters. If it were the end of the world, would we know or would we just be delivering toilet paper to those who can afford to hole up in their compound?

It reminds me of the fires last year and how Kanye and Kim bought their own private fire department to protect them. Also, as I have written before, this view exists in a western lens, because it erases the fact that Armageddon has already reached so many.

This virus does not discriminate, but it does make clear the class distinctions of those affected. What does it mean to be of the vulnerable population? What makes us vulnerable? Are we unable to care for ourselves, or is it that we are of an expendable population of workers? Or worse those made obsolete by our system (homeless, imprisoned, etc..)

There are large swaths of us "vulnerable," and that definition continues to widen. At this moment, there are houseless populations unable to abide by any of the C.D.C or W.H.O health precautions. This term Social Distancing means nothing to those millions holed up in our prisons, and even here on the outside. However, we in the service industry are not of these two most 'vulnerable' populations. People in the gig economy delivering food, products, and people are not allowed the privilege of social distancing.

I am not afraid of getting sick. I will be fine, but I can't help but notice the broader social implications of it all. The current narrative places the blame on the individual. The weight of the problems lay upon the individual, it can make existence feel backward. This virus easily frames the social inequalities that exist. When we fail to abide by the precautions and are sick, this is not an issue of individual failure. It is an issue of access and permission. Access to medical care to resources and permission to care for yourself.

My friend told me his boss, who ordered him to work from home, also urged him not to see other people who have traveled nor to have guests to not slow production. As a full-time student as well as a worker, my school has been shut down and classes transferred to online. This increased privatization forces everyone to use products for education that would not otherwise be used or readily available to some, and teachers are forced to pivot their lessons without compensation for the increased labor efforts.

And still, am I even vulnerable? This question rings loudly, for I am able-bodied and young, but still fear the moment.

The looming fear is the loss of control and the worries of being unable to care for myself or for others, or even to get care if needed. And all along the fear of increased security and control during a crisis like this makes me more anxious. As it stands, our current medical care system looks like a waterfall of go fund me pages on Facebook, and the quarantine will not work if all us proles are around scooping your food.

A vast majority of us are the "vulnerable populations" of course, there is a hierarchy of more considerable risks. Still, if you view this from the highlighted inequalities, even a go fund me or money pooling can't save us anymore. At this moment, our mutual aid efforts, our cooperation, and care mean more than money. At this moment, you actually have a responsibility to the health of your neighbor, for it affects you.

In the months to come, we may see a sizeable collapsing economic or political structure. People cannot work, and businesses cannot stay open. The fiction of money, which is all just floating invisibly between banks, only exists as long as it is in motion. As we see, the world is slowing, and some worlds are stopping altogether.

Some can work from home, many can not, and so it goes that people will not be spending. It is different from a recession because, in a recession, people are saving up. Here we see in tandem with not spending there will be no money to spend or save. This system cannot exist without constant spending.

Although jobs are paused, the business closed – rent still continues, bills still remain, and all the auto payments still continue until we exhaust the minimal amount we have to begin with.

There is a group of billionaires that could make it so that work pay, rent, mortgages, and student loans all could pause without disruption. But for billionaires to exist, extreme exploitation must also exist. Billionaires did not make it to where they are by grit and merit, they made it there because thousands of people suffer.

After my 8-hour shift, our work asks us to stay a little longer to clean up the chaos made by shopping panic. After we have served our community there is nothing left for us to buy. After selling groceries we cannot buy groceries. After this single store made millions in a day, we get paid the same, some hours even cut. The competition this system breeds leaves us workers angry and left behind by our fellows. The soup line gets longer and the soup gets thinner.

The system we know as reality is in crisis, and we should take this moment as an impetus to radicalize our thoughts and actions. We should interrupt this reality instead of absorbing and adjusting as always.

In this moment of existential panic, I want to reach out and ask that everyone I know allow your realities to guide your choices, not your principles. This moment should be a "radicalizing" moment. It has made very clear the contradictions of our system. The way out is in community, if you believe in the vote, please vote towards medicare for all, prison reform, in favor of labor and eliminating a predatory debt system. If you don't believe in the vote or even if you do, take this opportunity to realize our interactions and efforts at a local level are important; Necessary for the immediate relief and building of a people-powered movement towards a constant practice of freedom from this broken system.

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