A union that represents grocery store workers in Western Canada is calling for regulations on how Canadians shop for food and other essentials during the COVID-19 pandemic.
President of United Food and Commercial Workers 401 Tom Hesse says that grocery stores are a “free-for-all” right now, and his organization is asking governments to limit visits to one person per household, once per week. They’ve suggested that peace officers may be needed to enforce the rules and — in an unsettlingly cavalier attitude toward personal privacy — that company loyalty cards could be used to track visits.
The union’s objective is a crucial one: to protect frontline grocery store staff. The method they’re advocating, though, stands to harm more people than it helps.
The “one person, once per week” rule of thumb has been promoted by officials across the country as the safest and most responsible way to shop for groceries during the pandemic. This approach slows the spread of the illness by reducing crowding in stores and limiting each household’s chances of exposure to the virus.
But there’s a reason “one person, once per week” has remained a guideline rather than a regulation. It’s simply not achievable for everyone, and those who are least able to abide by this principle are the same people who are already at the highest risk from COVID-19.
There are those who have no way to get a week’s worth of groceries home alone.
First, there are those who can’t navigate a whole grocery store in one trip. People with mobility challenges or chronic pain might only be able to manage a couple of aisles. Individuals with anxiety or agoraphobia — conditions that could easily be aggravated by the pandemic — may need to limit the time they spend in stressful environments like grocery stores.
Second, there are those who have no way to get a week’s worth of groceries home alone. People who rely on walking or public transportation may not be able to carry that many items single-handedly.
And last, there are those who can’t shop solo without breaking other physical distancing recommendations. Single parents and other caregivers no longer have the option to leave their charges with friends or relatives while they go out for groceries, so they have to bring the whole household along with them.
You might argue that these are exceptions, but we’re not talking about a handful of people. Some 1.6 million Canadians are single parents, 2.7 million Canadian adults have a disability that impairs their mobility, and three million Canadians walk, cycle, or take the bus to work instead of driving.
When there are this many legitimate exceptions to a rule, it’s the rule that’s the problem. This is one reason a new law isn’t always the best solution to a public policy challenge.
‘This discrimination isn’t intentional’
Another reason is that law enforcement affects some groups disproportionately.
The law is meant to apply equally to everyone — the image of blind justice takes its inspiration from the ideal of legal objectivity. In practice though, the public is more likely to call the police on an Indigenous person or a person of colour than on a white person, and when police arrive, they’re more likely to use force and to press charges.
This discrimination isn’t intentional. Each of us has implicit biases, instilled by our cultural environment that affect our snap judgments of the people around us before we even realize it’s happening.
The upshot, though, is that excessive reliance on law enforcement during the pandemic would put Indigenous people and people of colour in particular danger not only of being fined but of being incarcerated or even injured.
There’s a troubling similarity between the groups I’ve just described, who would be most disadvantaged by regulations on grocery shopping, and those who are at the greatest peril from COVID-19 itself.
Let’s focus on what really matters: getting through this pandemic with as few losses and as much compassion as possible.
Having certain types of disabilities, living on a low income, or being an Indigenous person or person of colour are all factors that increase someone’s likelihood of contracting and suffering complications from this disease. If we set roadblocks to accessing nutritious food in their way, we’ll only increase the health risks these demographics are facing.
Instead of asking government to regulate how individuals shop, crowd-management strategies like limiting the number of customers allowed in a grocery store at a time, something many locations have already implemented, would be a more equitable approach.
Consider how much we’ve already accomplished in this province and in this country as a result of voluntary compliance with public health recommendations. In Newfoundland and Labrador, most aspects of physical and social distancing haven’t been mandatory, but we’ve still flattened our curve because the majority of us are doing the right thing.
While it’s natural to want to see a comeuppance for people who truly are flouting distancing guidelines, let’s focus on what really matters: getting through this pandemic with as few losses and as much compassion as possible.