The truth is, I’m not essential, and no one cares.
The world pre-Covid-19 seems like a faint memory, tucked away in the deep recesses of my mind. Like many of you, the new rules, regulations, and societal measures have become part of my daily routine.
The idea of “someone has to do it” hit me firsthand when I found myself working through the pandemic as a bakery clerk at Whole Foods. Who knew my expertise on sourdough bread and pastries would be deemed essential in a world of chaos (and what seemed like a zombie apocalypse).
I remember at first, in mid-March, masks were just an afterthought. I even refused to wear one. I didn’t like how stuffy they felt and how every single time I exhaled, my breathe would fog up my glasses and blind me. But, as I watched customers fill their carts with disinfectant wipes, toilet paper (lest we forget), and hand sanitizer, the gravity of the situation soon hit me. And so, the mask quickly became a part of my daily life.
My workplace adapted quickly. Masks became mandatory, along with millions of other protocols, including markings on the floor to control traffic and about 10 new sanitizer solutions for every surface. As I entered the store for every shift, a temperature gun would be aggressively pointed at my forehead as part of the new screening. Each time I would mumble-pray to myself, “Don’t get Covid today, Liz.”
As customers shopped with fury in the months of March and April, it was obvious that many were preparing to be enclosed in their houses for a prolonged period of time. They stocked up on tuna (what’s up with canned tuna?), bulk food, family packs of quite literally everything, and sometimes seven loaves of bread (to be frozen, of course). I became disgusted by the ideals of consumerism as customers carried out unsafe shopping practices on their weekly grocery runs. They were more confused by the fact that our open hot food bar was closed than how bewilderingly unsanitary it had been in the first place.
Did Karen really have to bring her three toddlers (wearing no masks, of course, because they’re special like that) into the store as she shopped for her kale and protein powder? Did Johnny really have to wear a thong as a mask (I’m literally not even joking)? Did Deirdre really have to chat up her neighbour Susan for 20 minutes, blocking traffic and infringing on social distance mandates? And my favourite: did they all really have to lower their masks just because I didn’t hear them the first time? How about you just speak louder? I’m trying here too, shoving Q-tips down my ear canals because literally everyone is whispering and I’m screaming and thinking I’m going deaf!
What I realized is that people will do anything to get what they want. If calling me “essential” gave customers peace of mind as they filled their shopping cards with consumer goods, that was to be done (how else will they fill that bottomless, empty hole within).
And this destructive behaviour didn’t stop. Rather, people found comfort in pretending that the pandemic was non-existent, both with their actions and with their thoughts.
At their worst, people live for things, not for other people. During the pandemic, people have found comfort in the addictive and mesmerizing qualities of getting what they want. These consumerist ideals, while all too common, have only been amplified by the pandemic. If your neighbour is buying six bottles of isopropyl alcohol and enough food to feed a small village, so should you, right?
When people order clothes online, for example, do they really think about the manual labour that went into making the product? Same goes with a visit to Whole Foods. Those customers picking up their loaves of sourdough bread that were freshly made in the morning, are they reflecting upon the bread team members that began their shift at 1:00 a.m. to have all the bread baked, packaged, and sliced for opening time? Probably not.
The cold, hard truth is that people refuse to face reality, especially in times of distress. They refuse to admit that they have to adapt, overcome, and change for the better. No one wants to change. No one really wants to wear a face mask. And I promise you, none of us want to be essential. Because, what are we essential for? The illusory happiness that comes with consuming material goods?
The system is enticing. It really is. The marketing, the bright colors, the key words. It’s a whole industry. The store employs a person to, quite literally, spend all day making signs that fit the Whole Foods “aesthetic.” It’s easier than you think to sell something. The system will never be stopped. Even if every single consumer, including myself, became fully aware of it, we couldn’t really do anything about it. We all have to feed ourselves at the end of the day.
In the months of March and April, customers were pleasant and understanding of the stress essential workers were facing by constantly being exposed to the virus. I even had a few customers walk around the store with signs reading “thank you” and other such warm messages. My neighbours and friends brought me supporting gifts and homemade snacks—I didn’t realize I was to be celebrated in such a way.
Yet, when April hit, customer patience ran thin, and so did mine. I experienced a customer walk in yelling at me to take off my mask. His rationale was that I was brainwashed by the government to wear it and, really, I was “slowly dying and suffocating, like that one elderly lady in the news.” Thankfully, I was more reliant on the scientific studies that were released daily, proving the functionality of masks and how they saved lives.
Those pleasant customers I had the pleasure of encountering at the beginning of the pandemic had now turned impatient, angry, and dismissive. Many got frustrated when I took the extra two seconds to slice their loaves of bread, or when I struggled to serve them promptly when my department was understaffed due to frequent sick calls.
Along with the inner battle of being stuck at home and enrolled in Zoom university, I had to face the fear of catching the virus as I spent 16 hours a week baking cookies, pies, and other confections.
I constantly felt tired, sad, and plagued by depressive thoughts. All I could think about was: “When will this end?” “Why me?” “I hate this!” and, most importantly, “Fuck Covid.” As each month passed, I moved my own Covid-19 expiration date prediction forward. What I originally thought was going to last a few months is now forecasted to continue into next year.
I feared for my own life and that of my close relatives. I tried to see the positives in the situation, but some days did not come as easily as others. I forgot who I was and came to be more exhausted with every mask-enclosed breath I took as I mindlessly navigated through life. I struggled to really find the “why” to being essential.
Whole Foods gave out t-shirts to all employees that labelled us as “heroes.” I didn’t feel like a hero and I was sick of being essential.
Alas, I continued to work through the summer. My plan to work full-time and save up came crumbling down as I decided to take the minimum number of shifts to reduce my exposure to the virus. Between shifts, I spent my time losing my mind at home, deeming every sniffle and cough to be a Covid-19 symptom.
Seven months into the pandemic—and seven months into “being essential”—the first confirmed case of Covid-19 was declared in my workplace. With that, the true colors of my management, and that of corporate capitalism, shone through.
What I realized was that as everything closed—shopping malls, restaurants, hair salons—my grocery store became a hub for socializing and satisfying cravings and desires. I was confused when my manager began comparing sale values from the pandemic to the same time last year. She was disappointed that they weren’t the same. Excuse me, ma’am, we’re in a pandemic. Please expect less. Like seriously. “Life goes on” truly isn’t the most appropriate or relatable statement when facing a pandemic. Because it does, and yet it doesn’t. Consumer habits change, public health regulations change, employees change as they face new adversities. Everything changes. And yet, everyone is pretending that it’s all the same. You just have to wear a new accessory now.
It all began with the generic text I received from Whole Foods alerting me that “your location has a confirmed case of Covid-19. Your safety and health are our top priority.” Having made it seven months without a single case, it didn’t hit me that this text from a five-digit number was really addressed to me. I nonchalantly looked up the number followed by “Covid scam.” It was only when other co-workers reached out that it clicked. My reaction was not a pretty one.
I was terrified. That same day I had spent time working on a project with three other individuals from my university. Had I infected them? What would they think of me? The highly stigmatized Covid-19 diagnosis seemed to be more plausible than I thought.
As I rushed over to a test centre, I couldn’t help but really reflect on the “your safety and health are our top priority” statement. If my safety and health was really the top priority for Whole Foods, would they have sent me a generic text and spared me the mental earthquake that was trying to figure out who had been missing from work lately and if I had interacted with them? Would they have broken the provincial regulations on the maximum occupancy of enclosed spaces in order to allow “more customers to shop and reduce line-ups outside?” Would they have rejected my request to take a few days off as I waited for my test results, deeming that “no one said you can’t work while you wait for your results?”
If they did, then that statement would be valid. But they did not.
We never did find out what department had the confirmed case. The store reached numbers of more than 100 on busy weekends, with no monitoring. My manager refused my request to take a few shifts off as I awaited my (negative) Covid-19 results. She explained that “your team needs you. I don’t care about the result. We need you here.”
In other words, the store needed to make money. The financial prerogative was more important than possibly sparing the lives of employees and customers alike. More important than caring for my mental well-being and stability. More important than being understanding that I didn’t feel safe in my workplace. This isn’t an exaggeration of what really goes on behind the scenes. It’s a pyramid scheme, and the essential workers are at the bottom. We are the shrimp in a sea of sharks.
One thing I pride myself in is that I am not a push-over.
I didn’t show up to work until I had my confirmed negative result, as advised by the doctor that conducted my test. I put in my two weeks’ notice the same day. I didn’t care that my manager was “pressured by corporate to hold certain sale values.” I was not going to allow anyone to treat me as such.
I may be an essential worker, but I am also human. These last eight months have been trying. I learned many lessons, and I truly was the bravest (yet, most emotionally drained) version of myself.
I learned what fear does to people. I learned what money does to people. I learned what ignorance does to people. I learned what is important in life (and it’s not bread and pastries, that’s for sure). I learned how hard life gets. I learned how sudden change can come. I learned what a pandemic does to me. But most importantly, I learned that I am resilient.
However, I don’t think I really am as brave or essential as our healthcare workers, who are the real heroes. What truly came out of this was me standing up for myself as I faced corporate capitalism, something I will most likely face many more times in my bright future.
The truth is, the label of an “essential worker” is nothing more than a façade perpetuated by corporations to soften the blow of having to work during a pandemic—of having to make them money. The danger non-essential (yes, I said it) and essential workers are placed in could have been avoided had it not been for the greediness of corporations to make money. Crony capitalism, propaganda, call it what you want. Sadly, the system can’t be changed. It is engrained within us. Unless I become a hermit, I can’t avoid it.
Calling a worker “essential” shouldn’t minimize the risk of holding the position. The situation we’re in should not be taken lightly, and we shouldn’t agree so easily to the terms set out by others. So really, are we heroes? Or are we victims?
These days I continue to be careful and wear my mask. When I shop at grocery stores, I say “thank you” and am courteous. There is a mutual level of respect that needs to be demonstrated.
The real way to thank essential workers is to avoid contact with them. I’ve seen friends change as the virus emerged. I’ve seen my co-workers live in fear and defeat.
There are right and wrong ways to deal with the adversity of Covid-19. I have yet to find all the right ways, but I am getting there. Quitting my job as an essential worker that I had for four years led me to a new job in my field of study, as well as new endeavours, all of which I didn’t think I would achieve in our current situation. As the world thought outside the box, adapted, and overcame, so did I.
So really, Covid-19 has been a blessing in disguise. But please, make it fucking stop.
Oh, and fuck corporate capitalism. And honestly, fuck Whole Foods.