It started with a run on toilet paper. Then hand sanitiser vanished from shelves. Canned goods and pasta disappeared soon after, as panicked shoppers found their weekly shops, and everything else, disrupted by the Australian outbreak of COVID-19.

Through it all, supermarket staff have worked to provide their communities with vital supplies. But as nationwide shutdowns bring Australian life to an excruciating standstill, supermarket staff have become frontline combatants against an unprecedented health threat. It’s a battle some staff say they’re simply not prepared to fight.

“We’ve all pretty much accepted that [infection] is inevitable,” said Tessa*, a baker at a busy Melbourne supermarket. “We’re going to get it from a customer. And then from each other.”

In conversation with PEDESTRIAN.TV, supermarket staff from major metropolitan stores have revealed their concerns for the ongoing pandemic, the new risks posed by their suddenly extraordinary jobs, and their role in an industry facing a historic challenge.

Supermarket workers like Tessa say the potential to catch the virus in their public-facing roles, combined with the reactions of stressed customers and the strain on everyday processes, has seen staff morale disintegrate.

“When I’m driving to work, I start to clench the steering wheel and just feel this rising panic because, you know, I don’t want to be there, but I have to keep going in,” the longtime staff member said.

She’s not the only one.

Supermarket workers have unexpectedly found themselves on the front line of this pandemic. Photo: AAP.

“I am struggling with stress and anxiety caused by the current situation,” said Melbourne store support worker Yvette*.

“Discussions with other team members have highlighted I am not the only one overwhelmed by stress, anxiety and similar emotions over something we as store employees can’t fix or control.”

It’s easy to understand their fears.

Days after announcing a limit to public gatherings, Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday night revealed a sweeping list of industry closures. Pubs have been shut, cinemas will go empty, and restaurants ordered to serve take-away only.

The measures are intended to limit face-to-face exposure between Australians to slow the community spread of COVID-19, which has already infected nearly 1,500 people and threatens to sicken many, many more.

With tens of thousands of workers now out of a job, and others conducting their duties from home, supermarket workers remain uniquely exposed to huge numbers of people — some of whom may unknowingly be infectious.

“That’s the concern, that someone will come in who isn’t showing symptoms, who, you know, touches a product, we touch the product, and then that kind of gets spread around without knowing,” said Rick*, a department manager at one of Melbourne’s busiest supermarkets.

Shoppers crowd outside a Woolworths in Coburg, Melbourne, waiting to be let in. Photo: AAP.

Rick, who has worked for the major chain for the better part of a decade, is on leave while he recovers from an unrelated medical procedure. He’s concerned about what he’ll face when he returns in a fortnight.

“If it gets worse, and then I go back, you know, in two weeks’ time, that’s something that I have to consider. Social distancing myself… in an essential services workplace.”

Coles and Woolworths supermarkets continue to provide hand sanitiser and cleaning products for checkout staff, and Woolworths has begun installing plexiglass screens on checkouts to protect workers from potential infection. Those screens will be rolled out nationwide in the coming days, a Woolies spokesperson said.

Despite the heightened hygiene measures at supermarkets nationwide, Rick admitted he would still be reluctant to work on the register during especially busy periods.

“If a priority was called or something like that, I would actively avoid going on checkout,” he said.

“And I don’t know how customers feel about that, too. Like, you know, do they trust us that we’ve done the right thing?”

The Federal Government has endorsed the doctrine of social distancing, encouraging those with no visible sign of the virus to stay home as much as is practical to reduce the rate of infection. For some, visiting the supermarket may be one of their only exposures to the outside world each week.

In addition to worrying about infection, staff are also concerned that shoppers who can’t purchase certain items may turn their frustration on supermarket workers.

“As more and more things have been disappearing from the shelves and customers have been getting angrier, it’s a lot of things like, just the general anxiety of, ‘Who’s gonna abuse me today?'” Tessa said.

People wait for deliveries of toilet paper, paper towels and pasta at a Coles in Epping, Sydney. Photo: AAP.

A Woolworths spokesperson told PEDESTRIAN.TV the “vast majority of our stores” now had a security guard in place, with “full coverage across our network” coming soon.

A Coles representative said the chain is “constantly reviewing the enhanced security measures” in response to the “unprecedented levels of demand we are seeing in our stores”.

Earlier, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association, the largest trade union in Australia, issued a statement urging customers “to please be patient and respectful to retail workers and remember that no one deserves a serve.”

While Yvette said her interactions with customers have been largely “polite and friendly”, she said enforcing the new purchase limits is “exhausting.”

“Mentally we are suffering, as we are pushed to our limits, physically and emotionally, to do more work, cope with more enquiries and interaction, cope with shortages in staffing levels and stock,” she said.

On Friday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said his government will relax curfews for delivery trucks, a measure to help supermarkets facing long delays for crucial supplies.

The move should alleviate some of the pressure, but staff have mixed feelings about management’s response to the crisis.

“The company says all the right things, but hasn’t followed it up by ensuring that team members are actually coping,” Yvette said.

Tessa said it was a fear of catching COVID-19, rather than management, that was putting her under pressure.

“It’s both fear from all of the news about coronavirus in general, and wondering when we’re going to catch it,” she said.

“Because you know, working in a customer facing position, it’s inevitable.”

*Names have been changed.

Image: Martin Keep / Getty Images