A SMALL wooden crate appeared on my doorstep, packed full of goods from my local organic fruit and veg shop. It was exciting unpacking and finding everything I’d asked for, plus some extras – exotic looking mushrooms, for instance. The last time I tried to shop there, the doorway was barred, though open, and I had a conversation at a distance with the shop owners. I was invited to sign up for home delivery as a regular customer. Week two, and I’m searching the internet for what to do with a glut of fresh turmeric.
At my local whole-food shop I joined a short queue, and soon arrived at a basket on a chair in the doorway. My transaction was like visiting the grocer back when I was little with the basket acting as the counter, except the payment was contactless. I washed everything down when I got home.
On my visits to Tesco there’s another outdoor queue with markers on the ground to help us with the 2m distance. More floor markers inside, and separate entrance and exit (I’d never noticed that exit door before …). I’m extra vigilant at the cash till – last week it seemed overwhelmed (as did the cashier) as it tried to charge me for the last customer’s goods as well. More washing down at home.
On my supermarket visits I’ve been bemused by the empty shelves where the pasta, rice, flour, eggs, frozen ready meals and the toilet paper should be. I figure the absence of food items is due to more home cooking now that the takeaways, cafes and restaurants are closed. It’s a good thought that people might be expanding their cooking skills during the pandemic, and I hope that practice becomes a permanent thing.
One of my favourite Radio 4 programmes, usually come across by accident rather than design, is ‘More or Less’. A recent edition featured the stockpiling phenomenon, and apparently only 3% of shoppers are actually doing what you might call overbuying. The shortages are caused by the rest of us buying an extra packet ‘just in case’. A certain amount of rationing was installed (early reports of abuse towards cashiers as they action this is a saddening outcome), although this is now mostly being lifted. ‘More or Less’ gives three reasons for stockpiling: panic, making more meals than before, and more frequent shopping at shops closer to home. There has been a 14% increase in the number of shopping trips in the last few weeks, and spending in supermarkets has risen by 20%, the highest ever for the month of March, and even more than at Christmas. They predict a slow down soon.
Meanwhile, my own cooking repertoire is expanding. I’m rather pleased with the contents of a small jar of turmeric and ginger pickle, and there’s some fermented beetroot on the go.
LAST Friday, I went to the hardware shop in search of some fixings, plant pots and various other necessary elements for my newly found extra-curricular indoor activities. I leave the flat in sunglasses and a long wool coat – it’s sunny but still a bit cold in Glasgow in March. I see a friend from afar who texts me later to tell me, ‘you look GLAM!!!’. I reply that I’m ‘sporting my spy-on-a-reconnaissance-mission look to make shopping feel more like a game and less life threatening.’
The shop is a few minutes’ walk from my flat and outside there is a cordon and queuing system in place. It is the same at Sainsbury’s next door where only five people are allowed in at a time and there is a queue of shoppers at 2m distances from each other outside causing some traffic and difficult pavement manoeuvring.
However, despite the current rise in home activities and do-it-yourself, the hardware shop isn’t too busy and I walk in after peering cautiously over the top of my sunglasses to see if the coast is clear. I enter, smile warily at the shopkeeper and after a successful mission in the Gardening section retrieving a couple of stacks of brown plastic plant pots (my tomato seedlings will thank me later), I ascend the stairs to the first floor to DIY in search of some bits and pieces to make curtain tiebacks (a project I will later abandon in lieu of watching The Sopranos). I make my way down a tight aisle and stop to rifle through various fixings.
I hear a male voice asking for the location of something and out of the corner of my eye I see someone appear at the very end of my aisle. Surely he is not going to … The aisle is about a metre wide. Yes, ok, this is happening … In slow motion, the man begins to stride down the aisle towards me. I panic and step in quickly towards the fixings, breathing in deeply and holding my breath, turning my face away from him and tucking myself in as close in as possible to the fixings to give him as much space as physically possible to walk past. You are welcome, pal, I think to myself as I turn my head and glare aghast at the back of his balding head striding down the aisle away from me. Do the rules not apply to you? His action feels so careless. I guess he is just not worried about either catching a virus that has killed almost 70 000 people in a matter of weeks or about passing that on to a random woman in a hardware shop.
I am confused and angry. I leave the shop quickly, paying for my bounty at a distance, through a small opening in the thin plastic sheeting erected around the counter. As I walk back to my flat I remember that I needed to get light bulbs. I consider turning back to shop but continue walking back to the safety of my flat, praising the glorious gifts of internet shopping and home delivery.
HERE in the south of France we are well through the third week of lockdown and approaching the fourth. So we are now familiar with the concept and the way of life; and things are starting to become habitual. Not that we like or enjoy it, but we can see the point of it and hope that it is going to work and lead to a return to some sort of normality eventually.
Going shopping has become a solitary pastime and is restricted to just the essential shops. Not going for lunch, not having a coffee while you are out shopping, not embracing and kissing those you see in the streets – the French way of life is destroyed! Basically, the only shops open now are those for food and drugs (though we can access DIY shops for emergencies) and we are expected to go alone, not in couples. So only one of us goes out to the local supermarket and buys the supplies for the week. We are also expected to travel only small distances, so use only local shops. Our village (population about 2 500) has one larger supermarket on the outskirts (the one we use) and a smaller one in the centre – this latter one is doing home deliveries for those who are self-isolating or are elderly. Certainly, there was a bit of a run on food as the lockdown approached: there were rumours of it happening for a couple of days before it was actually enforced. But now the shelves are full, though the range is limited, and there are no serious shortages – except there is no flour! Can it be that the French have become a nation of bakers, making oodles of gateaux to gorge on during lockdown?
As with the boulangerie in the village, local stores are very aware of the need to keep social distance – both have queues outside of shoppers maintaining space, using the marked lines on the floor and waiting their turn, patiently, to enter the shop and get what they need. Sadly, the state of emergency has not affected the boulangerie owner, Estelle, who can still spend up to four minutes chatting to the customer at the front of the queue, totally oblivious to the impatience of those lined up in the street viewing the conversation through the window.
Last Friday we took our lives in our hands and ventured out together in the car. We had heard of a nearby garden centre that is open for a couple of hours each day and needed to buy plants for our vegetable plot. Driving across country roads, we saw only the occasional other vehicle, found the shop open and purchased what we needed. At the garden centre itself it could have been any other day – except for the unnatural distance we kept from each other, viewing others cautiously, the couple of people wearing face masks, and the sanitising gel on the counter by the check out.
‘WHAT are those for?’ asked the cashier, pointing at two packets in my shopping bag; odd, as she had already rung them up. ‘They’re used for dusting,’ I explained. ‘I can’t sell you those under the regulations,’ she said. I had been looking for good old-fashioned yellow dusters for months instead of those plastic things that end up as particles in the ocean and was not about to give them up. Staff flicked aimlessly through a catalogue of prohibited goods. ‘These are cloths, not clothes, for cleaning purposes.’ I added helpfully; although exactly what part of my anatomy they thought could benefit from six dusters didn’t bear thinking about.
Eventually a fourth, senior staff member joined the throng and realising the absurdity of the situation bestowed permission. Mr Gwala, the supermarket manager, wandered across and I commented that I was a little disappointed my dusters had not been confiscated to add to my blog story. ‘Ah, tough times,’ was his enigmatic response. During the 1980s we lived, in the emergency that lasted three-and-a-bit years around here, through some truly bizarre experiences. But none came close to the purchase of humble dusters during the time of Covid-19. As people repeatedly point out, life has turned extraordinary.
On day seven of lockdown I took the car out for a major shopping expedition rather than the fig leaf trips that provide essential exercise. There is a strange air of unreality about; puzzled bewilderment and a sense of anxiety about where all this is going. Not in the right direction if our shopping mall is typical. Sanitising of hands is de rigueur and queuing is in vogue. But there were three queues for one shop, no signage, and no indication that a safe numerical balance was being maintained inside. Queuing seemed to be an object in itself. Social distancing everywhere was notable for non-observation except in till queues. Commerce designs spaces to cram people and goods together.
My expedition happened the day after Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula changed the commuter taxi regulations three times in 24 hours. Taxi associations had threatened strike action, so loading has been upped to 70% (still sardine-can conditions) and passengers are required to wear masks, although where township and informal settlement dwellers source these is anyone’s guess. Controls have been lifted on hawkers and spaza shops.
Alcohol and tobacco sales are banned. Illegal tobacco sales, which normally cost the South African fiscus R billions, will be flourishing. One source factory owned by a prominent Pietermaritzburg businessman is just a couple of suburbs distant from where this is being written. The owner is very well-connected to the top of the ANC, in particular within the Zupta faction.
Coincidence or conspiracy under ANC command and control?
Contributions by Penny Merrett (Sheffield), Caitlin Merrett King (Glasgow), Salleles d’Aude (Jonathan Merrett) and Pietermaritzburg (Christopher Merrett).