Nothing chills my blood like a phone call from an unknown number. My evening was rattled by the unfamiliar trill of an incoming call, too late to be a work call and not recognised by my phone as the number of the few people in my life who still ring unexpectedly in this day and age. It was a man in a supermarket who wanted to tell me they had no chicken fillets, and would drumsticks do?
It’s crazy in here,” he said over beeps and trills and clattering trolleys, “like Christmas.”
Since the start of this lockdown, I’ve been using an app to get my groceries delivered. Like most similar modern conveniences, it has almost eradicated the need to have any contact with another human being throughout the entire process. Stuffed bags of food appear to order at my door; I take them inside. At all times I felt like I was engaged in a fair exchange with a big, anonymous application designed to make a profit from selling convenience to me.
But with the phone to my ear, I could suddenly clearly see this stranger standing in the chilled meats aisle of a chaotic supermarket, wrangling a trolley with one hand and navigating a list of my shopping demands with the other. His voice was muffled by a face mask. Up until that point, I had stupidly failed to bother my conscience by considering how my choice to avoid the risks of the supermarket would involve making another human do it instead.
Because of healthcare concerns in my house, I’ve been cautious to the point of paranoid during this lockdown. Well-meaning visitors or invites for distanced outdoor coffees have been politely but firmly eschewed. The only time I’ve left the house at all has been for medical appointments, or an off-peak walk. It’s easy to frame this self-imposed hibernation as a grand gesture of my civic duty, the personal sacrifice that I’m making in the pursuit of the common good. But actually, it’s an extreme luxury to be able to choose to stay at home.
It’s way too easy to hide the lower-paid workers taking risks for the rest of us behind the friendly design of apps that trade on clicks of convenience. Last month, Deliveroo drivers in Dublin went on strike on a Friday night in protest at their working conditions. Deliveroo and its cute logo have always benefitted from the reflected glory of the restaurants we love and miss, as it ferries food to us in huge quantities during lockdown. But its Dublin drivers have been extremely vocal about their concerns over pay and conditions, which deserve even more attention now that they’re working through a pandemic.
I was far too guilty to consider crossing the picket for my usual weekly takeaway. But in truth, the strike for me was one of the most minor inconveniences imaginable. It raised awkward questions about the ethics of the app for a couple of hours before I completely forgot about it and used it again, the following Friday, without even thinking. Any lingering guilt about using Deliveroo is almost assuaged by the app itself, which is designed to prompt you to click to tip after each delivery. I do so willingly, as if it were a conscientious tax, then put my phone away and stop thinking about it.
Gig-economy jobs fuelled by delivery apps have always faced queries and concerns about workers’ rights, even before Covid-19. But in a pandemic where the necessity and value of these workers have been thrown into sharp relief, there is now an even greater need to make sure they are protected.
When I go down to the door of my apartment building on a Friday night to collect my food from the nameless, faceless people who take the risk of delivering it to me, I notice that a lot of my neighbours are doing the same. We pass stacks of soft parcels from online fashion brands piled under letterboxes, most likely stuffed with comfortable and luxe leisurewear. They sit alongside branded boxes from a low-price online bookselling behemoth, ordered in bulk to fill the void of our leisurely weekends.
We’ve been able to shrink the world and bring it to us so that we can feel safe and comfortable. Entire companies are designed to make this as easy as possible for us, but maybe it’s time we asked harder questions about the cost of our own convenience.
We Need to Talk About…
As I tied my scarf inside a plastic bag, I started to think about superstition. I began the week leaving out my “brat Bhríde” ahead of St Brigid’s Day on Monday, also known as the festival of Imbolc. (The bag was for fear the scarf became a carrier of Covid-19, very much undoing the whole point of the exercise.)
As my phone dinged with reminders from family and friends about the religious tradition, I realised I’ve never before heard or seen so much about the patron saint any other year. Far from being a sign of an unprecedented rush back to Catholicism, I think it’s a mark of how the collective loss of control over the last year has left us much more open to spiritualism, superstition and a willingness to put our trust in a greater force. One can hardly blame people for looking for small, harmless comforts where they can.