I went to the supermarket yesterday. Online grocery deliveries have broken down. No matter which website we opened, be it Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Tesco, Asda, none of them were working properly. Several times we were put into a long virtual queue. Once we had finally selected all of our groceries, the payment system would not work, or all possible delivery slots were unavailable. This is how we spent several evenings over the last two weeks. We are still lucky enough to get our milk, vegetable, some fruits, eggs and meat delivered by a local delivery service which we had subscribed to long before the crisis started.
And yet, it was time to leave our house and try our luck in a physical supermarket. We did not need toilet paper. But we were in dire need of some flour (as we had rediscovered how funny it can be to do pizza, cake or bread on our own, even more when you have a two-year-old daughter around), pasta, yoghurt, cheese, shampoo, chocolate and wine, among other things.
When I arrived at the supermarket, there was a long queue of people waiting their turn in, each two or more meters apart from the other. Security personnel were policing the entrance. I put on some plastic gloves, grabbed a trolley and joined the queue.
But right from the start, I sensed that something was different. I don’t mean the obvious physical differences; respecting social distances of two metres, putting on gloves, potentially wearing a surgical mask. It was something else entirely. I could see it in people’s faces, their cautious movements, their nervous glances. Not only the situation had changed: grocery shopping before COVID-19 and grocery shopping during COVID-19. More than that, people have changed. On my way to the supermarket, where oncoming people change sides; in the car park, where cars are parked as far away from one another as possible; in the supermarket queue where people try to behave normally, some casual laughter, nonchalant chat or forced smile, without being able to conceal their anxiety. There was an anxiety in the air that no one could escape.
This apprehensive sensation follows me into the corridors and aisles of the supermarket. As a positive surprise, I notice that there are several packages of flour left. With a few quick moves, I grab two. My surprise turns into astonishment when I catch sight of several packages of toilet paper neatly stacked on an otherwise empty shelf. The stockpiling frenzy seems to have come to an end, only to be replaced by something else that has started to take hold.
The virus can even be transmitted by people who feel completely healthy, not showing any symptoms at all. This disturbing fact turns everyone into a potential transmitter of the virus. And is it only me, or are some of the people in the supermarket looking at me suspiciously. The middle-aged women with the lob haircut and fancy yellow glasses in the meat section, following me with her eyes when I walk past her; the tall man in his twenties, short blond hair, half of his face hidden by a dust-mask, sprinting through the aisles as if the air in the supermarket were toxic; or the overweight man, unshaved, and uncombed hair, with his hands in rose-coloured rubber gloves, moving along cautiously, skipping any aisle with more than one other shopper.
Am I making things up, seeing things that exist only in my head? Is it just me who is suspiciously glancing at those people pushing their trollies past me, with less than two metres` distance; skipping aisles with more than one or two people; selecting those mushrooms safely sealed in plastic boxes instead of the loose ones; and in general steering clear of all loose fruits and vegetables for fear of contamination.
I was relieved when I was home again, carefully disposing of my plastic gloves and washing my hands even more carefully for 25 seconds (five seconds more than necessary; every second counts in killing germs). But even in my home, I can’t escape the fear and suspicion that has been building up over the last few weeks. The virus is everywhere: the pandemic, the infection rates, the deaths. On TV, on the radio, on the internet, on my mobile phone and laptop. And even if I switch off the internet, I am mercilessly drawn back to the virus, the pandemic, the infection rates, the deaths by this nagging curiosity to know what is happening out there.