Sunday at Countdown
3 April 2020
Opinion: Last Sunday, medical student Emma Espiner made a slow and deliberate trip to the supermarket, where she found that we are approaching social distancing in a very New Zealand way.
It took me three attempts to go to the supermarket. Two days ago I saw the cheerless conga line snaking around the car park of the Dominion Road Countdown and carried on walking, stopping in at Commonsense Organics to spend an improbable amount of money on organic goods that weren’t quite equivalent to the non-organic things I actually needed.
Yesterday I saw the line at Countdown hadn’t shrunk (are they the same people, still waiting?) and hurried by. How much did my daughter need Corn Flakes? Surely she’d be just as happy with Weet-Bix, a cereal we possess in ominous abundance.
Today I girded my loins from the outset - put on my backpack, my husband’s good headphones and a podcast tutorial about atrial fibrillation. I was undeterred by the line, which seems to have a fixed length irrespective of the time of day or movement in and out of the store.
As I planted myself two metres behind the last person, I saw a dishevelled guy lurch towards me. He could have been homeless or perhaps he was just a mid-level marketing executive, previously a big deal in Britomart, today just another dad figuring out how the f**k anyone home schools their kids. He was perspiring and his eyes were bulging as he told me that the line moves really fast! I was touched by his community spirit but pleased that he didn’t stop to chat.
People were filming our line. I felt like I was part of something. Maybe my friends would recognise me on someone’s Snapchat or Insta story. I didn’t film anything because generally I feel like I’m above that sort of thing. The truth is that I only take photos of things in public when nobody else is around to witness me caring about stuff.
I tried to impart my gratitude to the staff with the wideness of my smile and the patience that I tried to emit from my pores as I waited at the start line for enough people to leave so that I may enter. The woman whose departure allowed me through the doors was clearly not living her best life. She was precariously in charge of a small trolley with a collection of random items - toilet rolls, beer, granola, an assortment of cheeses - she shrieked at the staff “IT WAS SO STRESSFUL I HOPE THIS LASTS ME FOR TWO WEEKS.”
The staff, who are genuinely frontline in terms of risk right now, did very well to not roll their eyes. Reader, I did not succeed in mimicking their equanimity.
I am slow and deliberate now, at the supermarket. Every item I considered whether we needed it (mini Cadbury Creme Eggs = yes), and whether there would be enough for others if I purchased more than one (coffee). I wonder about the stories behind the smattering of empty shelves. Is the mince gone because everyone is comfort cooking spag bol? Are the Maltesers out of stock because of a supply chain issue? I feel sorry for the decaf coffee, always last to be chosen in the hot drinks aisle.
I notice that we have approached social distancing in a very New Zealand way. Apologetic and diffident, we skirt around one another on the sidewalks and in the aisles. We smile at each other with a mix of sorry and yeah/nah eh. The sidewalk dance is now the ‘who will cross the road first’ dance.
I’ve taken to walking in the bus lanes. A no-nonsense looking mother out for her daily constitutional with her family yelled at me approvingly through her mask “GOOD DISTANCING” and I felt like a child again, being rewarded for being first on the mat with my arms crossed.
I’m allowed to skip the line, apparently. Essential services. I even have a letter. I will if I need to one day, but today I don’t have anywhere else to be and I like being part of the line with everyone else.
Emma Espiner (Ngāti Tukorehe, Ngāti Porou) is a writer and final year medical student in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences. She comments on social issues, health and politics for Newsroom and is the host of Getting Better, a RNZ podcast about Māori health equity.
This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.
Used with permission from Newsroom, Emma Espiner: Sunday at Countdown, 30 March 2020.
Gilbert Wong | Research Communications Manager
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