COVID Convos is a series of original columns conceptualized to give you something else to think about as we manage the coronavirus pandemic. Hopefully, they will provide you with a different perspective about an issue related to the crisis…or a brief smile. Remember, with COVID-19: this too shall pass.
We’ve all been pummeled by the novel coronavirus, both physically and emotionally. It’s almost impossible to watch television anymore, with even the scroll at the bottom of escapist shows like NBC’s Ellen’s Game Of Games being filled with global COVID-19 mortality stats, and projections that the worst is yet to come.
Times like these are reminders to thank the doctors, nurses, first responders, and all professionals who are doing their best and literally putting their lives on the line for the best interest of the people they’re serving. You can hardly watch a newscast without someone, either the anchor or the on-air “expert” / guest thanking members of the medical professions, very deservedly, for the job they are doing.
But I’ve been stopped in my tracks, as we’re collectively pausing to thank everybody, by the overall exclusion of one key group of professionals: the cashiers and service people at the grocery & convenience stores, big box department stores, and fast food restaurants.
No one signed up for exposure to the virus that causes the potentially fatal COVID-19…but medical professionals, first responders and the like did, kinda. At the very least, they knew when they chose their profession that the time might very well come when they would be asked to risk their lives to save someone else’s.
The kid working at McDonalds did not. When he started working there part time last fall, he didn’t know that his school year would be cut short by a global pandemic and he’d be stationed at a drive-thru window, like the one around the corner from your house, waiting on car after car full of potentially asymptomatic, coronavirus-infected fast food junkies who couldn’t bypass a Big Mac to potentially save someone’s life.
My heart breaks for the medical professionals, but many of them have been making a very good living in a job that they knew might threaten their lives and those of their loved ones. I like to tell myself that that’s why, in part, they are generally highly paid.
We don’t even want to pay the cashier at Wal Mart a living wage, while their jobs, suddenly during the pandemic, have been deemed “essential.” And they’re being asked, night after night, to work from sundown to sun up restocking the toilet paper shelves that we emptied during our panic shopping binges, or spend their days without protection as they let people like you and me buy the restocked paper towels.
By and large, medical professionals can afford their medical care, if (God forbid) they fall ill to coronavirus. The clerk at 7-Eleven, the one who is working there to support her family, most likely is going to have a harder time paying her medical bills. But she’s there every day, taking payments for gasoline, selling cigarettes, and selling Slurpees and Big Bites because, by and large, she can’t afford not to be.
The last time I was in Target, picking up the paper towels that I hadn’t been able to find for a month, I stopped to ask the kid running the register, Justin, how things were going. He answered by telling me how the store was doing: business had, understandably, been slow. I then clarified that I wanted to know how he was doing. Target would undoubtedly survive COVID-19. Justin might not.
He glanced up, clearly surprised by the question, and said “I’m ok. Hanging in there. Thank you for asking, sir.”
I’d decided to speak to Justin, in part, because I had watched the half dozen shoppers ahead of me, all standing six feet apart from each other in line, purchase their toilet paper and paper towels without even making eye contact, let alone offering a decent salutation. I’m an extreme extrovert, so I tend to speak to everybody and their mother, but this time around, I wouldn’t have missed a chance to give a kid who was providing an “essential” service a virtual, verbal hug.
As I left Justin’s cash register, I thanked him for being there, much as I thank veterans for their service. Just as I know that I would never have enlisted in the armed forces, for a variety of reasons, I don’t believe I’d have reported to work at Target that particular day, when my newsfeed was full of conflicting, confusing, and potentially frightening news about a virus that could take my life just days after infection.
And I was happy to hear the shopper behind me greet Justin with a warm “Hello, how are you today?”
Maybe kindness, like coronavirus, is contagious, too.
For years while my kids were growing up, I took part-time jobs in retail to help keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. So I know what it’s like to need a part-time retail job. I don’t know what it’s like to risk my life, and the lives of my family, to show up for it.
So, yeah, let’s thank those medical professionals for being on the front lines of COVID-19. It’s the sexy thing to do. But let’s thank those cashiers and service people at the department stores and fast food restaurants, too. They’re on the front lines, as well, but they’re being paid a lot less to be there.
And they, unlike the doctors, nurses, and first responders facing coronavirus, in no way signed up for the risk they are taking just by showing up for work.