Everyone is supposed to be under lockdown. All non-essential services are – criminally slowly – being closed. We’re implored not to stand too close to others, to wash our hands and so on. All these measures are necessary in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world.
And yet a couple of times a week, every week, most people – at least, those of us without servants – have to make a trip to the local supermarket. We put our grubby hands on trolleys and baskets, pick up items and change our minds, we brush past dozens of others in jam-packed aisles and stand in lines waiting for the checkout. None of this is our fault, of course, it’s just the way things have always been.
But it means that supermarkets have emerged as a potentially deadly site of infection and cross-contamination. All it would take is one sick person to unknowingly walk around doing their weekly shop and you could end up with infections everywhere. It is madness that the workers and consumers are put at risk in this way, and that such vital nodes for the distribution of resources are exposed to the risk of lockdown.
As a result of years of competition and consolidation, the few big supermarket chains are the only thing that stands between us and mass shortages and starvation. It is almost impossible to access goods from other sources. This situation gives supermarket workers incredible power. It wasn’t obvious until now, but these workers are essential to keep society functioning. The staff at the registers, the shelf-stackers, the deli workers, the cleaners and the logistics workers behind the scene – these people are frontline workers in every sense of the word. Already they’re overworked, stressed out of their minds, and they’re facing months of the same. It’s only going to get worse.
Imagine if all of them, even in just one store, went on strike for just one hour. You can picture them announcing over a loudspeaker that they were being criminally underpaid and mistreated, their lives put at risk, demanding all of this be rectified. You could imagine the cheers and agreement from the public. Though the despicable retail union, the SDA, makes it difficult, building to such a point should be the goal of every leftist supermarket worker. Their pay should be more than doubled, their conditions improved. They are on the frontlines of this emergency.
Instead of helping their workers, those who run supermarkets are shamelessly profiteering from the slow-motion car crash that is unfolding before our eyes, with reports of price-jacking during the crisis. And at the precise moment when it is most needed, the supermarkets have abandoned the option to pre-order items for pick up or delivery. Why? The system couldn’t cope with the increased demand for these services. There’s not enough stuff to be pre-ordered, there aren’t enough workers to pick them, not enough drivers to make deliveries. Only a totally irrational, market driven system could be so stupid as to cancel a service precisely when it’s needed.
There are obvious solutions to all this, if you think about it for a second.
Every supermarket could be nationalised without compensation, and given a catchment area, much like public primary schools. We could then hire dozens of staff to help restock goods, all the while implementing extreme safety measures such as cleaned uniforms provided for free each day, social distancing, sanitiser, etc. The government could then implement price controls, and rationing if necessary, on every product. We could then employ drivers from the now collapsing taxi and rideshare sector to deliver pre-ordered goods safely to every door.
You could also do all that without nationalising, by government decree and strict oversight. Even in that situation people would be far safer, goods would be distributed more consistently, and thousands of workers would have enduring job security and access to affordable necessities.
It won’t happen though, because capitalism is a chaotic mess of a system.
There are often three supermarkets competing to serve the same neighbourhood, for no good reason. Federal and state governments refuse to impose serious measures that might undermine corporate profits. And keeping workers and the poor safe is the last thing on anyone’s mind.
But all of it could be done. We don’t have to live in a society that puts us at risk in so many ways. We could live in a world where problems were solved based on a rational and democratically planned allocation of resources, so that everybody was looked after. That’s socialism, by the way. Let’s fight for it.