So, it’s day two of working from home on 19 March and the first morning that people were officially able to try early shopping slots for elderly and disabled people since the Corona outbreak. I don’t have the storage to bulk buy or freeze batch cooking, so I just needed to go to my nearest Sainsbury’s branches soon after 7 as possible. Luckily, it’s close and they were first to declare this service.
The first thing I noticed was the queue. This isn’t new since Coronavirus restrictions were tightened, but I was surprised at how much irritable shuffling and muttering there was. There was nothing exactly scary, but nothing good about it either. The tension was obvious, it only needed something slight to set it off. As I approached, I realise that this ‘something’ could easily be me. Nobody likes a queue-jumper.
As I was by myself, I couldn’t tell who was queuing for the early opening and who was waiting for that window to finish. Either way, I was entitled to go in early so had to navigate my way through and risk irritating those were just as entitled to be there as me. A clear case of how a white cane was a handily visible indicator that I had a right to go in early.
Luckily, staff saw me and ushered me to the entrance. Unfortunately, this was where my luck started to run out. First, there apparently weren’t enough staff on duty to offer help. The obvious argument began about how I couldn’t shop unaided, to which the first replies were that I surely had friends or family who I could come with or ask to shop for me. The time I wasted explaining that I had no choice but to do it myself allowed a ten good minutes of shopping time to pass. At the end of this discussion, they did find me someone, but then pointed out that they had no new produce. I would have shopped anyway but knowing this earlier might have given me some choice. I might have gone somewhere more helpful, for instance, or tried an independent store.
The shop itself was of course tricky. My list went out the window as I desperately tried to make my guide understand that I just needed to know what sort of things were left. Without this info, I wouldn’t be able to buy anything. Put another way, a totally blind shopper can’t browse.
We slowly made our way round but, by now, the general public had been let in. Because there was next to nothing in store, staff had decided to open at 7:45 rather than the promised 7. This meant the early shoppers had fifteen minutes to get an advanced look at, well, nothing much.
At this point I learned what panic buying is, namely a state that brings out the best and worst in people. One moment, a shopper was helping me locate something my staff guide couldn’t find. The next, a family was literally ramming me out of the way with their trolley to get at the goods they wanted. When I say ‘ram’, I really do mean an act introduced by one person instructing their companion to ‘just ram him out the way’.
Once I’d got hold of some useful items, I paid quite easily and got out smoothly, but more was to follow. This branch of Sainsbury’s is set back from the main road and, as I began my walk home, a small group of people suddenly became noisy to my left. I heard a phrase like “what’s he got” I was actually ready to tell them, to give them a list of what might still be available. As they marched towards me, however, it became clear that they just wanted what I had, regardless of whether it was what they came for.
I can’t say if others would have helped, it’s a big deal to expect someone in a charged atmosphere to leave a food queue. Fortunately for me, I was only ten paces from the main road and, because it’s very busy, I knew anything they tried would be much more visible, and less appealing, if I could just get there. A case of speeding up a little – so quick march!
Suffice it to say, I got there unharmed. I have no proof anything horrible would have happened, but it felt like a close shave. I bought the rest of what I needed from a small local store but was quite shaken by an experience that belonged more in a movie than in the community I know. To make matters worse, more supplies were delivered at around 9am, just as all the priority shoppers were leaving.
I’m sure lessons will be learned about steadily releasing goods into supermarkets and how to make people behave responsibly, but I felt like I had an early insight into how things might be if the panic rises. There are clearly people in tougher situations than me, but I had a strange feeling that I lost out here actually because I’m an independent blind person. That is, someone who copes alone if a few structures exist. If those structures become strained, I’m perhaps at greater risk than I realised of falling through the cracks. This situation is a test of reasonable adjustments and policies to help disabled people with things like travel and, of course, shopping. I guess I just learned today how fragile such measures really are.
Andy Law, London Vision Development Manager, 19 March 2020