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On the UK’s high streets, coronavirus poses a special kind of threat | Tom Grindrod | Opinion


It’s a strange time to be working at a prominent high-street fashion retailer. For many in the UK, this week has been one of self-isolation: staying away from work, stocking up on essential items, sealing themselves off from the threat of infection. Yet for many others, self-isolation is an economic impossibility – it means being unable to afford to pay rent, or afford food at the end of the month.

In our store, the shopfloor was eerily quiet for most of last week, with staff outnumbering customers (it became significantly busier on Friday). Living in a busy urban area, I saw that this was not the case in other shops: supermarkets, pharmacists and hardware stores were very crowded, and staff were inundated with frantic requests for specific items, many of which were already sold out. I know from the experience of the past week that it’s not easy to tell someone who is panicked or scared that there is no hand gel or face masks to be had.

Coronavirus is everywhere – both literally, in the sense that it’s spreading at an alarming rate, and psychologically. It’s impossible to avoid discussions and news reports about the virus. Yet thousands of people still have to go to their poorly paid retail jobs and cope as best they can in the face of anxious customers and the news of escalating infections. Unlike the “preppers”, self-isolation is not an option for us. Perhaps more pertinent is the high probability that we are going to be infected: my job entails handling products that may in turn have been handled by countless customers, with whom I also interact. I handle cash, too. And because my job is not well-paid I have a poor diet, relying on pre-prepared and processed food to get me through my shifts. The retail lifestyle is not a healthy one.

Nobody works in retail because they have a passion for customer service, or get a thrill from menial work. I am forced to work in these conditions in order to pay rent and feed myself. Even though I could be incubating the disease right now, I will still go to work, because I cannot afford to take a day off.

Overwhelmingly, retail workers are those who don’t have the qualifications to pursue better jobs; they live in built-up urban areas, within a reasonable commute to their place of work (not many retail assistants can afford to run a car). These kinds of workers are not of the highest concern to the government, who secured their historic majority with gains in predominantly rural parts of the country. Moreover the legacy of a decade of austerity policies, which disproportionately affected the urban poor, is not going to be reversed any time soon. Yet these are the same people who are going to suffer most from the coronavirus as it spreads in large towns and cities, feeding on the proximity inherent to urban life. Meanwhile, people who cannot afford to get sick will still go to work, fuelling the epidemic.

Of course self-isolation should be encouraged where it is necessary – but the government’s assumption that everyone could isolate themselves is symptomatic of their lack of awareness of people like retail workers. If you are lucky enough to stay away from work this week, please recognise that while you do so, some people have no option other than to keep on going, and expose themselves to the real possibility of infection.

Tom Grindrod is a retail assistant at Primark



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