Virus lockdowns put Europe’s invisible workers on front line

Cashier works at shop wearing a protective mask and gloves in Ljubljana, Slovenia, 16 March 2020. [Igor Kupljenik/EPA/EFE]

As the coronavirus outbreak confines millions of Europeans to their homes, others still show up every day to perform jobs too often undervalued — from truck drivers and checkout clerks to security guards and street sweepers.

AFP journalists interviewed several workers helping ensure a minimum of daily life in cities brought to a standstill by the crisis.

‘I no longer see my parents’

Ester Piccinini, 27, is a nurse at the Humanitas Gavazzeni hospital in Bergamo, northern Italy, which has been hammered by a wave of coronavirus deaths.

Before the outbreak, she managed the wing for patients awaiting surgery but it now houses an impromptu intensive care unit for the most severe COVID-19 cases.

“I no longer see my parents, because I don’t want to risk infecting them,” said Piccinini, who earns up to 1,500 euros ($1,640) a month.

“Every morning before I start work, I make the sign of the cross, and pray that everything will go all right. It’s not really for myself, I’m not really worried about me, since I’m so protected. But I hope everything will be all right for my patients.

“When a person is transferred to intensive care, it means the situation is dire. We try to reassure them. Sometimes a caress is worth more than words.”

‘Speak as little as possible’

“In Spain, cashiers are well aware of the contagion risks, but clients, not so much,” said Ana Belen, a 46-year-old cashier and union delegate in Alcorcon, a Madrid suburb.

“The recommendation now is to speak as little as possible with clients,” she said, and to request that people pay with cards instead of handing over cash.

“We know that we have to come to work, we know that we have to provide this service. But at the checkouts, 95% of the employees are women, who most often have children or elderly people they have to take care of.

“So when you come to your checkout, you’re constantly thinking about your mother, who is ‘at risk’, — you worry if just by bringing over her groceries, touching the bags, you are going to pass on the virus.”

‘They’re afraid’

Mohammed, 40, is one of the thousands of Paris street sweepers and garbage truck operators who have continued to traverse the city each day.

“It feels like you’re the only person in the world, there’s no one to talk to,” Mohammed said while making his afternoon rounds in northeastern Paris.

“You go out with a knot in your stomach… I’d like to be tested, because if it came back negative I’d be a lot less worried going to work,” he said, not least to prevent contagion for his parents, who live with him.

Mohammed and his colleagues had no face masks or hand gel for weeks as the coronavirus outbreak gathered speed in France — not until someone at their depot tested positive.

Once the nationwide stay-at-home orders came into effect and the death toll mounted, Mohammed said he noticed a change in people’s reactions when he passes.

“Some say hello, wish us good luck. It makes you feel appreciated, it really does us some good,” he said.

“But there are also some people who move well out of the way when they see us coming,” he said. “They’re afraid. I understand.”

Tips up ‘a little bit’-

“I bought a small box of masks at the beginning, but they’re all gone and I haven’t found any more,” said Ousman, a 22-year-old who delivers meals in Brussels.

“When I arrive, I set the package on the front box of my bike, I say hello and then I step back so the client can pick up his order,” he said, offering a demonstration while waiting outside an Asian restaurant still open for carryout.

Wearing a wool cap and with a large cellphone strapped to the sleeve of his duffle coat, he stood behind a makeshift safety barrier of crates erected outside the restaurant’s takeout window.

Ousman, whose family is originally from Guinea in West Africa, says he makes about a dozen deliveries per day, earning some €400 a week.

He rents an electric bike for €170 a month, and would have to pay for any masks or protective gloves out of his own pocket.

Since the crisis, he has noticed that some clients have increased their tips “a little bit, like two euros.”

‘It would be tough’

Dirk Foermer, 50, works in an assisted-living facility with 37 elderly residents, many of whom suffer from dementia, in Berlin.

“I think public perceptions of care for the elderly are quite far removed from what it actually is,” said Foermer, who has worked as a nurse in geriatric care since 1996.

“It’s not just about washing people or seeing that they have clean trousers,” he said.

“They have so many stories to tell — just so much knowledge and so much input. I find that fascinating.”

He has noticed that “the status of people who work in care homes, in shops or even warehouses is growing — which is nice to see of course. The public are realising how much they depend on these people.”

So far, strict disinfection efforts have kept his home free of coronavirus cases, but they have taken an emotional toll.

“A resident may come to us or may want us to give him or her a hug. This is a bit difficult at the moment, because you have to keep your distance,” he said.

“The dementia patients… also don’t really understand why their relatives are not visiting… We are trying to keep them connected with iPads and either Skype or FaceTime.”

“Infecting the patients is what I am really afraid of. We have residents we have grown very fond of, and if we were to lose them because of Covid-19, it would be tough.”

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