Praise to Those on the Front Lines

Part of the bread aisle this morning. These shelves aren’t going to restock themselves.

Life in Vienna is having to adjust quickly and relatively radically to the realities of the pandemic—indoor gatherings of 100 or more people or outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people have been cancelled, which means that in a city known far and wide for its cultural treasures there will be no church services, no concerts, no plays and no museums for the foreseeable future. The borders to neighbouring countries are closed in both directions, which is a dramatic development for a region that has fought hard to win the free movement of people. Universities and schools are closed in a city that recently celebrated the 650th anniversary of its university’s founding. Starting on Monday, most businesses will remain closed for at least 7 days; only those that provide essential goods and services such as pharmacies, banks, gas stations and grocery stores will be allowed to open. And it is the employees of the latter that I would like to commend during these trying times.

Of course by doing so I don’t intend to discount the professions we normally think of during emergencies such as healthcare professionals and first responders. They will be on the front lines of the pandemic too, and their work is absolutely critical to saving lives. If past experience is any guide, I am confident that their contributions will be honoured in private and in public. But I want to make sure that the unsung heroes of the current crisis—in particular the staff of grocery stores—receive their due too.

As uncertainty about a worrying situation mounts, people have gone shopping for food and other supplies. This is a predictable response. Civilisation hangs from many threads, of course, but I can think of no faster way to cause rioting in the streets than to threaten the food supply. China knows this, Korea knows this, Italy knows this; that’s why even in the areas hardest hit so far by SARS-CoV-2 grocery stores have remained open.

At a time when vast swaths of the population have been encouraged or required to retreat to the relative safety of their homes, grocery store employees have shown up to work to restock decimated shelves and supply the staples that sustain life and preserve the peace, dramatically increasing their contact with the public at a time when we all know the threat of exposure.

In Austria these employees are almost exclusively women. In the US the workforce is more diverse, especially in areas with unions where pay and benefits are more attractive, but women and teenagers are overrepresented and generally poorly compensated. It’s easy to overlook their role in the modern consumer miracle wrought by years of prosperity, technological advances and the wizardry of just-in-time supply chains, but these are the people with their finger in the dike, the thin line between civilisation and something bordering on an apocalypse who will meet some of our most basic needs despite the pandemic, largely without the benefit of the kind of training, protocols or protective equipment that we normally provide those who put themselves in harm’s way to serve the public.

If there is any justice in the universe, we will be inviting them all to lunch when the crisis passes. In the meantime, keep a prayer for them in your hearts, thank them appropriately and use contactless payment!

Can you think of other overlooked groups on the front lines who deserve recognition?


  1. We’re on first-name, how-are-your-kids, we-remember-your-birthdays terms with some of our local Trader Joe’s crew. I’m thinking of them a lot. (Also hoping to persuade my buddy Mary to hide some of the dark chocolate peanut butter cups for me until I get there.)

    Hero is definitely not too big a word for what they’re doing and will continue to do.

    I also think the parents of young children who are up-ending their lives, scrambling for solutions to care, and in some cases basic nutrition, deserve our attention. School is one of civilization’s great achievements. And in the United States as our social connections and safety nets have eroded, school for school-age children has been the one constant most parents could rely on. We are now foisting an impossible weight on parents. This is going to be very, very hard.

  2. Well said. Yes – thank you to the grocers. I’ve also been thinking of the farmers, food processing facilities, and truckers. While not as exposed as the grocers the food won’t get to the front door without them. Lots of truckers where I live and they probably face a weird contradiction of being a vital yet facing significant income loss.

  3. Billy Possum says:

    Thank you. This post gives sharp relief to a perspective we are losing: that feeding a person is a profound act of human love. After reading this and living through this time, I think it will be harder for me to forget that. Even when, inevitably, we return to our unconscious, inhumane commodification of food (and food people). God bless the truck driver, the migrant farm worker, the cashier.

  4. I so much appreciate this reminder. Thank you.
    Second hand I have the story of a nearby grocery store with empty shelves. The story is that there are supplies in the storage, but nobody available to stock the shelves. It’s a strong reminder of almost invisible people who keep my life running.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this. I worked I. Grocery stores as a teen. I never faced a situation like this, UT I have some sense of what goes on behind the scenes. We owe these folks a huge debt of gratitude.

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