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The pandemic has overstayed it’s not so welcome invitation in our world. And while doing so it has presented us with great challenges and has brought enormous changes in our day to day lives. Even though it has been a difficult time for all, while some of us had the luxury to process these changes from the safety and comfort of our homes, others were facing the eccentricity of these unfamiliar times head on, while making sure the changes were as smooth and safe for us as possible. While we have been quick to acknowledge the contributions of first responders such as nurses, doctors and health care providers, we cannot forget to pay our thanks to the essential workers who have been tirelessly working, keeping our community running in the face of a pandemic.

            Moushumi Matin is one such essential worker. Ms. Matin lives in Mississauga with her husband and her two daughters. She works as a cashier at a superstore chain and has seen the pandemic unfold right form the stage of panic shopping, the mandating of masks, to lockdowns and vaccine roll outs. Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with her and ask some questions about her experience as an essential worker during a pandemic.

What was your experience like working when the pandemic had just begun?

At the beginning it was all sort of scary. Suddenly there was a huge rush of customers, buying groceries and other essentials and before we knew it, all the shelves were empty. I think, that was when the fact that we were in a pandemic really set in. With the start of lockdown, other stores were closing down. But as we were a grocery store, we stayed open. I could feel the unusualness of the situation because while commuting to work, I would barely spot any person out on the street.

Work must have been really different compared to the pre-pandemic times. What were some big changes you saw at work?

We started implementing limits on how much product each customer could buy to make sure we could supply products to everyone. It helped to make sure no one was buying excessive products, not giving others a chance to buy what they needed. Masks were made mandatory and we also started wearing surgical gloves. We still frequently sanitize our workstations and each day when we arrive at work, our temperatures are screened at the door.  During the lockdown there were limits on the number of customers that could be inside the shop at the same time. I remember, there would be long lines at the door. At one point, we were only selling essential items such as food products. But sometimes there were customers who needed more products as they had a large family or had a new baby in the family. I felt bad for not being able to  provide them with enough products that they needed due to the limit on each product per person. The thought of people having the money but not being able to use that money to buy what they need to survive was a scary thought.

 How were you feeling while navigating through all these changes?

I felt good for being able to help people in this difficult time. But at the same time, it was sad to see people in need of essential items not being able to buy those products as sometimes we would run out of supply. It was difficult to see people in such a hopeless and desperate state. I was also constantly worried about being exposed to the virus while at work. I was worried about not being able to work if I fell sick and I was worried about putting my family at risk of exposure to the virus.

What did you find most challenging in this time?

Maintaining safety measures at work was challenging at times because many customers would not follow the rules. But the most challenging aspect was commuting to and from work. To follow proper distancing, there was a limit of 12 person per bus. This was a good thing as we were able to maintain safe distance from each other within the bus. But at the same time, it meant long waits for the next bus if the 12-person limit was reached before you could get on the bus. And the wait was usually around an hour long. So, to be on time, I would have to leave very early from home and even then, it would be difficult to ensure a spot on the bus. It was equally difficult getting back home. For those of us who had to rely on public transportation to travel to and from work, it was an extra challenge. To make sure that I was reaching work on time, sometimes I had to uber to work. Which, first of all is more expensive than transit and at the same time has its own risks. Because you never know who has used the uber before you. Were they healthy? Were they vaccinated?

How did your workplace support you? How can they support you better?

Working during a pandemic was extra taxing for those of us who continued to work. As some employees  left due to health issues and safety concerns, most days we had twice the workload than we would have on a normal day. During the first few months, my workplace gave us a raise for our efforts. This really helped us, however, in the long run they did not continue with this initiative. I think the current circumstances and the added workload on the employees make them well deserved for a raise. Continuing that initiative would have definitely allowed us to have a more balanced work and personal life, which has been difficult to maintain during this pandemic. Besides this, more flexible work schedules would help us all, especially those of us commuting to work every day.

How was your experience with the customers?

There was a  panic working in all of us. Most customers were really nice and cooperative. Most of them try to thank and let us know their appreciation for our efforts. And we in turn also appreciate that. However, there are always people who are disrespectful and who do not follow mask rules or would not follow the ‘six-feet distance’ rule. They do not realize how doing so is putting all of us – the employees, the customers, our families that we go back to – at risk.

How can the community support you better?

I think the biggest support we can receive is understanding and respect. I just want people to realize that every day we are putting ourselves and our close ones at risk to go to work. Whenever I meet a nice and respectful customer, everyday works seems much more rewarding. But meeting a rude customer can feel equally draining. I just hope everyone can realize the sacrifices we have to make every day so we can be at work to provide them with the safest service during this pandemic. I hope they cooperate with us and follow proper safety measures and help us keep everyone safe.

Do you have any last messages or anything you would like to share that you have learned through this experience?

During this time, one of the biggest things I learned was managing my fear and getting to work every day. It’s different because the fear is not just for my own health but also for the health of my family and anyone else I come across. This experience really taught me how to manage my fears and how to not let my fears control me. I also realized how each of our individual steps can play a big role in any condition. Just by taking care of our personal safety we can reduce the chances of spreading the virus by a great deal. I really do hope that people follow these safety measures and do their part in keeping everyone in the community safe. I also hope that people are more respectful to each of the essential service providers during this pandemic and most importantly be kind.

Thank you, Ms. Matin for your time. You should be proud of the work you are doing to keep our community running in this difficult time. You are truly essential in all its meaning. I thank you for being so courageous and kind during this extremely difficult and unusual circumstances.

            Dear readers, every day in our community, many people are putting their lives at risk so we can be safe during this difficult time. I hope the next time you are outside enjoying these services, you take a small amount of time out of your day and let these heroes know how much you appreciate them.

Sreya is a second year student at UTM. Sreya is majoring in Psychology with double minors in Women and Gender Studies and Political Science. She has an ardent love for everything Jane Austen and Meg Cabot. Besides her books, Sreya loves travelling, watching movies and putting faith in the power we all have within ourselves to work towards changing the world to be a better place.
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