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written by Will Staynes
in category Stories

Key workers and supermarket staff have always been there. Why do we need a pandemic to finally say thank you?

Over the last few weeks, social media and public discourse has become awash with people racing to capture their gratitude of key workers and supermarket staff. All of a sudden, we’re taking the time to appreciate these people and their stories. 

That’s why there’s a variety of heart-warming videos featuring hospital staff being clapped as they head to work. We’re making eye-contact with supermarket staff and taking the time to ask how they are. 

It’s all great to see. But let’s be honest with ourselves: none of it is normal. 

These people have always been there – doing what they can to make sure that we’re able to live our lives comfortably, while also managing their own lives, interests and responsibilities. But before the pandemic ensued, we’ve tended to keep them at a distance.

Yes, we rely on them to keep us safe and healthy. But only on the strict condition that we have minimal interaction with one another. No eye-contact. Don’t worry about a receipt. And no, I don’t need a clubcard, thank you.

Present circumstances though have changed that. We’re proud to show our appreciation of these professionals – we want to find out more about them. And it’s about bloody time. 

A friend of mine – and an orthopaedic surgeon – echoed this when he said that staff in his hospital actually feel buoyed by the public’s new-found gratitude. That’s despite the stress they’re feeling right now.

“The morale I’m exposed to at work is the highest I’ve seen. There’s a huge appreciation of people in the NHS that I’ve not seen before. There’s free coffee offers. Free flowers. Free shoes in some places. For the first time in clinics, people are actively thanking me for the work I’m doing…”.

That’s in stark contrast to a lot of the public sentiment that has come before it.

In 2013, the leaders of 10 NHS organisations felt the need to write an open letter calling for politicians to have a ‘more measured view of how the NHS is performing‘. At the time, Mark Porter, chairman of the British Medical Association, criticised ministers who he said were unfair to blame GPs for pressures on emergency care. And then in 2016, the Sun proudly proclaimed war on junior doctors when one of its headlines read: “sack the docs”. Interestingly, it has since set out to position itself as a friend of the NHS.

The same sentimental u-turn extends to our perception of supermarket staff too. 

While at the shop, I found myself trying to catch the eye of a staff member who was clearing away boxes – just so I could say good morning. I’ve never done that before. Soon after, I’m chatting away to one of the cashiers. They themselves admitted to being taken aback by the warmth that customers were expressing, by saying: 

“…you’re all asking me how my day is. People want to know about me and whether I’m taking care of myself. They’re making eye contact and thanking me, instead of just tapping away on their phones. It’s nice. It certainly makes the day go faster”

All of this is great to see. At a time of mass uncertainty, it’s heartening that people are appreciating the professionals that have long helped us to stay healthy.

It’s a shame that we need a crisis to finally recognise that.

Many of us will already be thinking about the best way of celebrating once everything returns to normal. Let’s make sure that we stop celebrating the key workers and supermarket staff around us.