On the front lines: UBC students juggle safety, isolation and finances as essential workers

While most Vancouverites are practising physical distancing, some UBC students are heading to work on the front lines as they serve the general public during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They are grocery store employees, nurses, volunteers in hospitals and students. For weeks they’ve had to balance the complexity of their work with their studies, while adapting to a rapidly changing work environment — one that is drastically different from the one they were hired in but in which they are expected to perform similar duties.

Unless you are on the front lines, Maitri Panchal, a third-year student majoring in microbiology and immunology and volunteering at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH), said that “it’s really, really hard to grasp" the scope and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You can read the news, but unless you’re going outside ... you’re unlikely to really realize how intense everything is,” Panchal said.

Alone at work

The intensity is caused by the stress of working in a pandemic environment is amplified by the physical isolation of many jobs students hold.

In grocery stores, workers are hidden behind masks and plexiglass barriers, leading many to feel disconnected from the shoppers in the grocery store.

Thalia Ramage, a fourth-year English major who works at Save-On-Foods, said that the plexiglass at the checkout counters forms barriers “in terms of sound as well,” often making it more difficult to hear customers and furthering the disconnect between her and those she is helping.

Andrew Leong, a fourth-year student completing a combined major in science, said that when he arrives at Whole Foods to work as a team member, he enters the store through an employees-only entrance and has his temperature taken before he can begin work.

He then spends the day avoiding aisles that are occupied with too many people and at times struggling to hear customers through their masks, making interactions even more challenging.

With one customer that Leong was struggling to hear, he leaned towards them subconsciously.

“It was just my instinct to lean forward, to hear better, and that customer … took a step back and I was like, ‘Oh yeah! I’m not supposed to do that now!’” he said.

Panchal recounted a similar experience at VGH in which her first reaction towards a distressed patient was to comfort the individual.

“That is just not something we are able to do physically at this point in time … developing that intuition of having to keep your distance from people is difficult to establish but … it puts things in perspective of … this is an actual problem that is occurring and we need to take it seriously,” Panchal said.

The interactions that front-line workers have with the public might seem small but can have profound effects on said workers.

Ramage said that one interaction that stands out to her the most is when a customer revealed to her that he had returned from Australia during the beginning of the pandemic in Canada and had been self-quarantining for two weeks.

"I was the first person he spoke to outside of quarantine," Ramage said, an interaction that she said solidified the severity of the situation for her.

To stay home or to work

There are multiple reasons why students are still going to work. Some students have chosen to continue working because they need to support themselves financially and are not eligible for government financial aid or because their job provides them with health insurance. Other like the structure it provides.

Leong said that he's continued to work for financial reasons.

“[Whole Foods is] not laying anyone off, so then I wouldn’t qualify for any of the benefits that [the government is] putting out right now,” he said.

Ramage said that she doesn't "need the job" in order to support herself financially, but works for the benefits.

"I’m ... worried about losing my health benefits, because those pay for my antidepressants, and I need those."

On the other hand, Panchal said she likes the structure volunteering provides her with. With her normal routine in disarray, she said that her volunteer work keeps her "sane."

“If you’re just sitting at home and not really doing anything, it's really difficult to motivate yourself and if you’re not able to interact with other people, it’s a really strange mind space to be in,” she said, adding that her volunteer work makes her feel like she's contributing something and helping people.

But she noted that her living situation allows her to volunteer and potentially put herself in contact with the virus.

"I’m really lucky to be in situation where I’m living alone and ... with my interactions, within my social circle, I don’t know anyone who would be at risk, and in general I’m not really interacting with anyone," Panchal said.

The importance of front line work

Interactions with customers have been mixed for Leong and Ramage, but Leong said that in general, he thinks the pandemic has revealed how important jobs like grocery store workers are.

"I think that one of the things that this situation has really highlighted is how essential some of these workers are to keeping society functioning and everything," he said.

At VGH, Panchal said that despite the pandemic, they have a surplus of volunteers.

"Some of the volunteer coordinators are saying that there's such an outpouring of help ... that it's actually really hard to [sign up to volunteer] right now, because there’s just such a reach from the community trying to help people," she said.

“The degree of willingness of people to help is so inspiring to see."