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Essential workers’ voices on the Covid lockdown of 2020

As we reflect on the ‘team of five million’ and the collective effort over those tumultuous months, essential workers’ experiences should be at the forefront, writes Nayantara Sheoran Appleton.

The one-year anniversary of our first Covid-19 lockdown in Aotearoa was accompanied last month with a lot of slapping ourselves on the back for a job well done and reflecting on the year that was. 

The “team of five million” is writing its narratives of life with and without Covid-19. We see many stories of “being kind”, of “being in it together”, simply “loving your bubble”, of the amazing “communication strategy” and 1pm briefings as a national ritual that united us. 

However, in all this talk about winning and victory, many of the narratives of the people on the ground who did the hard work have been sidelined. Research released by the CARUL Collective of scholars, of which I am a member, draws on survey responses from more than 2,000 respondents since April 2020. 

This data shows “winning” in Aotearoa depended on more than just the winners hailed as such in public and media discussion. It depended on two key groups of essential workers: supermarket workers and healthcare workers. 

Lockdowns were a different reality for many of these essential workers.

As one of our respondents, a nurse, said of the complaint of others stuck at home bored (which was their reality, but clearly not a universal one for people on the frontline): “I got tired of hearing people complain about being bored. I would have loved to be safe at home in a bubble. I am a nurse. Working through lockdown takes over your life. You can’t get away from Covid-19. It’s a concern of the majority of patients I had contact with during lockdown. Continually hearing ads on radio/TV affected many, causing unneeded mental stress on people already under stress with loss of income and changes to their life.”

Some families had to create their own additional rules and protocols to contribute to the national winning project. A respondent wrote: “My wife is a healthcare worker, and son is a security guard at a hospital. There is little PPE [personal protective equipment] for them, and we have had to establish our own protocols for them as our other son is immunity compromised.”

Although some respondents spoke about the stress of shopping in grocery stores, responses from grocery workers were an important reality check on the experiences media and public discussion mostly focused on. 

Yes, more of us shop in stores than work in them and the tendency to focus on the majority experience is understandable. But, in focusing on the narrative of the shopper, we can mistakenly minimise the amazing contribution supermarket workers made – even under extremely stressful conditions. As one wrote, “As a supermarket worker, customers on occasion treat us like lepers or don’t understand why some stock is not available. Also, we are informed that we are B-grade essential workers yet we face more people in any one day than most other essential workers yet can’t get simple aids like flu jabs till well down the list.” 

While most people in lockdowns were appreciating their time with family, some families had to exclude family members because they worked in supermarkets. As a mum of grown children in Christchurch wrote, “My other son and his girlfriend … were their own little bubble living away from us. Interestingly I had initially advocated for our bubble to include them (i.e. a family who lived in two houses which was allowed in some circumstances) but my partner was adamant he didn’t want to be exposed to my son’s girlfriend who was a supermarket worker.” She went on to talk about her partner, who was a nurse and did not want to be doubly exposed. These negotiations of who was included and not included in bubbles were deeply stressful for a lot of families whose contributions made this winning possible. 

Narratives like these are a reminder that when the story of winning over Covid-19 is written it will have to account for more than communication strategies or “staying home”, but rather how the people who make our everyday possible put a lot on the line. While we are busy patting each other and our leaders on the back, let’s take a moment to thank our essential workers and reward them for what they have made possible by creating policy (and pay) frameworks that recognise this contribution. 

As one respondent, a working grandmother, wrote, “My grandson would like to spend time with us. But as we are a house of essential workers, three of us at a supermarket, we think the risk is too high.” This was after the level four lockdown, when other families were allowed to mingle and merge their bubbles. Not a reality for a lot of people on the frontlines. 

One quote that really resonated came from a supermarket supervisor responding to a question about their activities during the previous 24 hours in level four lockdown in April 2020: “Working – at home housework – sleeping”. That routine simply repeated, over and over.

So as we cast our minds back to that extraordinary time in 2020, let’s remember our essential workers who went over and above, forgoing a lot of teddy bear walks, in order for us to win. 

This research was conducted by the CARUL Collective of 15 scholars in Aotearoa (independent research scholars and academics at AUT, the University of Auckland, the University of Waikato and Victoria University of Wellington) and the UK (London School of Economics). 




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