‘I’m saving lives,’ says trolley attendant amid covid-19 lockdown

Essential workers in the retail sector are doing their best to keep South Africa safe from the coronavirus

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Every day Chris John, a door attendant at a retail store, sprays hundreds, if not thousands, of customers’ hands before they do their grocery shopping amidst the coronavirus outbreak. 

Duncan Masiwa reports that like many of the customers, who are only allowed to buy grocery essentials, John wears a face mask. He is lucky. Many others in similar positions at stores across the country do not have any protective gear despite trying their best to keep others safe. 

“What I’m doing is important in the fight against the coronavirus,” says John outside the OK MiniMark in Beach Road in Strand in the Western Cape. “I am in a dangerous position because I’m constantly exposed to people who enter and leave our shop. It’s a concern for me, but we all have do what we can.” 

In the last few weeks confirmed covid-19 infections rose at a dramatic speed, including a few deaths. This worries John tremendously although he is still inspired to do his bit to help keep people safe.

He says, “Every day the number of people infected rises. I can’t solve that problem, but I can help by SANITIzING our customers’ hands.” 

John would prefer all South Africans to wear a face mask when leaving their homes to do essential shopping or when they’re visiting a doctor or pharmacy. Unfortunately, there is a critical global shortage of masks and many healthcare workers also have to work without them. 

Until now, the World Health Organisation has recommended that face masks only be worn by people who are ill with covid-19 symptoms or those who are looking after someone who may have the virus. The WHO is now reconsidering their official position after new research suggested that coughs and sneezes may project particles much further into the air than previously thought – six metres for a cough and up to eight metres for a sneeze. 

John says, “The customers should also make an effort to wear their masks because we are also at risk. But some people don’t care. They come into the store without masks, but I tell them to come back with a mask next time they return to our store. They must understand they’re not only protecting themselves, but they also protecting someone like me who’s standing at the door.” 

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Chris John, a door attendant at a retail store.
Chris John, a door attendant at a retail store.

Werner Wahl, the co-owner of OK Foods and OK MiniMark in Strand, has made the health and safety of his customers and workers a top priority. He says, “We have a dedicated person at the door to sanitise the shoppers’ hands and trolleys. After every transaction our cashiers sanitise their hands as well as the till point. We also monitor the headcount of people inside the store to ensure that the shop is not overpopulated.” 

Wahl’s employees are also asked to take precautionary measures at home. “We have encouraged them to wash themselves the moment they get home after their shifts. The virus can live on material. It’s important to be cautious because we don’t know what’s on us.”  

Workers are also screened before they’re allowed to begin their shifts. “We check everyone’s fever with a thermometer. Luckily there’s been no one with a fever and we will continue trying to keep it that way.”  

Wahl urges other retailers to also do all they can to protect employees and customers.

“There’s only a handful of us considered as essential workers, so let’s all play our part in curbing the spread.” 

About 28 kilometres further, the store manager at SPAR in Zevenwacht Mall in Kuils River, Yolanda Arnolds, explains the precautionary measurements they have taken in this unprecedented time. 

“At all our till points we’ve put up see-through perspex barriers between the cashiers and the customers. At first, we struggled to get masks for everyone, so the barrier was the quickest alternative. The barrier was only going to be there until after the lockdown period, but our management team have decided to make it a permanent feature in the store.” 

Other measures they have implemented include the ban on children entering the store during the lockdown. Arnolds says, “If we don’t do everything we can to stop the virus from spreading, we might find ourselves in a position where we have to close shop completely.” 

Trolley attendant Ntombifuthi Taai, works at Checkers Van Der Lingen in Paarl in the Boland.
Jerome Ndumba, a trolley attendant at Checkers Van Der Lingen in Paarl in the Boland.

Sinesipho Tom reports that many security guards who are currently on duty during the lockdown are scared that customers might infect them with covid-19. Ntombifuthi Taai, who works at Checkers Van Der Lingen in Paarl in the Boland, told her, “My job is very important to me, but I don’t feel safe. I don’t know which of the customers who enter the store have the virus.”

 job entails sanitising the hands of all those entering and exiting the store, and also counting the number of people inside the store to adhere to the government’s strict instruction prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people. Trolleys are sanitised before being given to the next customer. 

“My job makes me feel like I’m saving lives. I’m also very scared, but I have to come into work. I am scared that I will infect my family. I don’t know what else I can do. If I had money I would stay at home and not come to work,” she says. 

“To protect myself and my family from being infected I use sanitiser and pray to God each morning before I leave for work. Our employers gave us masks and gloves to protect ourselves.” 

Her colleague Jerome Ndumba, a trolley attendant, says he feels like a hero working during the coronavirus lockdown.

“My job makes me feel important because I’m here to look after the customers and to clean the trolleys to make sure that anyone doesn’t get affected.”

“I must make sure that I take the trolleys from the parking lot and clean them before they enter the store.” 

He makes sure that he’s at least a metre away from customers at all times. To stay safe he religiously washes and sanitises his own hands. He is not afraid that his own family might be infected because he took pro-active measures. “We have sanitisers here and there are people by the door who put sanitisers in your hands so that we are safe.” 

Many other retailers, including Pick n Pay, Clicks and Shoprite, have also fitted screens at their till points, which is where the bulk of proximate interaction occurs with customers. 

“We are committed to providing pharmacy, healthcare and essential goods throughout the lockdown and are doing everything we can to ensure that our staff and customers are safe and protected,” says Sedick Arendse, Clicks chief store operations officer. 

The Shoprite Group says it is also tracking the guidelines and advisory updates of the World Health Organisation, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases and any directives announced by government to stay abreast of required actions to be taken in relation to the effect of covid-19 on its customers, employees and operations. 

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