Literal Comforts

From mid March onwards, my phone pinged constantly with new Whats App messages. School, sports club and hobby group updates, friends and family checking in. A constant shared stream of communication which was a welcome distraction against a backdrop of increasingly depressing news and wall-to-wall pandemic coverage.

And there were the jokes.

Memes, videos, song parodies. Twitter responses to evolving events. Much of the humour was cathartic, tapping into the general Zeitgeist and downbeat mood, and in itself a coping mechanism.

The absurdities and anxieties of “Pandemic Living” have lent themselves almost-too-well to dark comedic observations which have both entertained and informed. These have provided a shared release and emotional connectivity at a time when the world felt like it was spinning out of control.

For my own part, I’ve collated a short list of my own favourite quotes & extracts from past and present literary greats which have helped to make sense of this strange period.

On Family Life

“We were together. I forget the rest.” – Walt Whitman

On Coping With Fear and Anxiety

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” – Maya Angelou

On a Child’s Perspective

“‘Where are we going, Pooh?’ ‘Home, Piglet. We’re going home because that’s the best thing to do right now.’” – A.A. Milne

On Resilience

“If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.” – Seamus Heaney

On Isolation

“There are days when solitude is a heady wine that intoxicates you with freedom, others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall.” – Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

On Working From Home (and Home Schooling)

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are” – Theodore Roosevelt

On Community 

“Lean on me, when you’re not strong, I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on. Just call on me brother if you need a hand, we all need somebody to lean on” – Bill Withers (unsurprisingly this song with its uplifting and pertinent lyrics has become an anthem for collective caring during the pandemic)

On Bereavement 

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and to endure the betrayal of false friends. To appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. That is to have succeeded.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Delivering on the “Last Mile”

Many “norms” in how we purchase and eat our food have been well and truly turned on their head in the past few weeks as our habits have changed abruptly, and of necessity, as a result of the pandemic.

Eat-in restaurants have become takeaways. Delis are offering drive by and delivery shopping services. Artisan producers have been scrambling to get a direct to consumer offer up and running. Everyone in the business is ramping up their online presence and looking at new and different ways to reach their customers.

It hasn’t been all plain sailing for the food retailers either. Tesco has already flagged that extra costs to the business this year will be close to £1bn across its operations in Ireland and the UK. This is due to the reduced numbers allowed in stores, extra staff costs in overtime and bonuses and the cost of servicing online sales.

With people now queuing for up to an hour or more to get into supermarkets at busy times, shopping trips are no longer trivial affairs and are being kept to a minimum in most households. Top-up shopping trips in convenience stores are anything but convenient when they involve queuing for a prolonged period.

Add into the mix the fact that smaller retail shops don’t always lend themselves to social distancing. Narrow aisles and locations in urban locations adjacent to busy pavements can make for an uncomfortable customer experience.

While the number of actual shopping trips has greatly reduced, the amount of goods being purchased has increased substantially. In Ireland March 2020 was the biggest month of grocery sales ever recorded with shoppers spending over a quarter more than usual.

The early days of the pandemic saw, rather improbably, a run on toilet paper (no pun intended) as well as long-life cupboard staples such as pasta, rice and sauces. The prospect of an extended period indoors with young children prompted lots of would-be bakers to dust down their cook books and stock up on flour, eggs and sugar. Hungry teens needed extra snacks and sandwich supplies. And with adults being human, and also needing treats and small things to look forward to, chocolate and alcohol featured fairly prominently as well.

A few weeks into restrictions, and as shoppers realised that the food supply chain was intact and there were generally no issues with availability, spending has settled into a kind of normal or at least regular pattern.

An interesting framework developed by research company Neilsen defines different cascading behaviours throughout the trajectory of the pandemic. It’s fairly safe to predict that there will be a longish transition from the current Restricted Living stage to the Living a New Normal stage in the coming weeks and months.

abbreviated_6thresholds
Source: Neilsen

By far the biggest challenge for all players in the food supply chain however has been the so-called “last mile”. This is the final logistical stretch involving the transportation of goods from the point of sale to the end destination (people’s homes). And this has proven to be costly and problematic.

Demand for home deliveries has been unprecedented as people have sought to minimize exposure to crowded environments and the rather ardous chore that shopping has become. With demand far outstripping supply, securing a delivery slot has become equivalent to having the hottest ticket in town. Online shopping orders have increased fivefold. For those who can’t quite believe that they are queuing to get into their local Lidl on a Saturday night, the irony is not lost.

Some of the changes are – I would cautiously say – welcome. Shopping in bricks and mortar stores has, in some respects, become more enjoyable. The shops are less busy. Customers are less likely to push and barge about the place. Distancing at the check out makes for a much more pleasant experience. Perhaps because this is one of the few outside activities that people can do (currently) and everyone seems to be taking their time when they finally get in store.

What other changes might there be, in the short to medium term (and very possibly longer term), to people’s stay-at-home food habits?

  • More conscious and consistent efforts to make meals interesting with experimentation in new ingredients and recipes?
  • Increased frugality and care in food purchase and meal planning leading to a reduction of food waste?
  • Attempts to recreate the restaurant and “eatertainment” experience at home with aperitifs, cheeses and themed meals?
  • More thoughtful food choices which comfort, nourish and protect mind and body?
  • Greater emphasis on meal preparation skills, and handing over the reins to different (and younger) members of the family?
  • Takeaways – standard and new gourmet versions – may well become the ultimate weekly treat, providing a welcome break from monotony

All eyes are now on China to learn from their experiences of the pandemic. What is becoming apparent is that as Chinese people were compelled to stay at home for a lengthy period at the peak of the epidemic, the “homebody economy” has become the new normal. This reflects the ease with which people were able to shop, study, work and find entertainment online at home. Consumption trends may well have been re-shaped for the long term.

In spite of China having one of the most advanced e-commerce markets in the world, online retailers still found themselves tested and stretched in new ways during the height of the pandemic. During the quarantine, fresh food channels grew significantly, and 89% of Chinese mainland consumers have said they would be more willing to buy daily necessities and fresh products online after the pandemic. Huge efforts have been made to reduce human-to-human contact and ramp up “contactless delivery” by the deployment of autonomous vehicles or drones to deliver orders.

Here in the western world, habits which have evolved over the past few years have suddenly been quashed. People had grown accustomed to convenience, ease of access and immediate availability. For years convenience has been king and online shopping occupied a tiny (if rapidly growing) percentage of the market.

Now though, there is no doubt that on-demand delivery will continue to scale up; we’ll also see increased numbers of “smart” pick-up options; and a fairly relentless drive towards contactless. Buymie here in Ireland has reported a 300% increase in app downloads in recent weeks.

All the while, there is very much a feeling that the “rulebook” has been well and truly torn up and thrown away. Particularly when our sole comparator for the current situation goes all the way back to 1918.

As societies worldwide continue to navigate carefully and cautiously through this crisis, it is entirely possible that we’ll find ourselves in the not too distant future talking about the “old normal”.

“Stay Apart to Pull Together”

This is a very different piece to my normal posts.

But nothing is normal at the moment and like everyone else I’ve been watching the developments of the Covid 19 pandemic with increasing levels of alarm, dismay and, at times, horror. The speed at which world and societal order, norms and expectations have been turned on their head, has been shocking to say the least.

The tagline Stay Apart to Pull Together has become synonymous with Ireland’s fight against the current pandemic. An evolving series of business and leisure restrictions have been introduced to ease pressures on the health service and ultimately save lives. People have become very familiar with a whole new vocabulary which includes the terms “community transmission” and “social distancing”.

But while we must now of necessity cede control of so many aspects of our lives and personal liberties that we take for granted it’s just as important to feel in control of as much as is possible. Our thoughts for starters. Accept that this situation is what it is, reframe your perspective and things will get a lot easier. Anxiety will go down and you will find yourself making the best of the situation.

I’ve also found myself thinking about how this period of enforced downtime may reap some benefits or give rise to new (and better) ways of doing things or have longer-term implications as yet not clear. Some of my thoughts and observations below:

  • Life can be distilled to some pretty elemental basics – eating and drinking, taking care of immediate family, simple forms of exercise, work/study and at-home socialising and entertainment.
  • No more FOMO; everyone is staying in.
  • The mundane will become magnificent. Earlier this week, we spent 20 minutes admiring the teamwork of some bluetits eating bird seed from the dispenser in our garden.
  • A single tier health system in Ireland is possible.
  • Embrace your inner grey because, in just a few short weeks, your real hair colour will be revealed to the world.
  • The expressions “my personal space” and “giving someone a wide berth” will take on a whole new meaning.
  • It’s a great time to learn a new skill/hobby or revisit a lapsed one. We are gardening, baking, practicing our musical instruments, reading and exploring new ways to self-entertain. I’ve dusted down a pair of knitting needles and am midway through scarf number one, with wool ordered for a second. It’s very possible I’ll have scarves knitted for everyone in the family by the time this is over.
  • Many many things can be done remotely or online, with a bit of creativity. We are not just “moving” online, we are “living” online and virtualising our entire lives. I’ve spent much of the past week arranging digital playdates for my children via platforms such as Google Hangouts, Zoom and WhatsApp.
  • Life’s very small pleasures will fill you with delight. Seeing my preferred brand of toilet paper on the shelves of Tesco during my most recent visit (previously unavailable for reasons everyone will be aware of) practically put a skip in my step.
  • With all meetings and business engagement moving out of offices and into people’s homes, it feels weirdly intrusive and distracting to be seeing inside people’s domestic spaces while on calls.
  • Can the world function without cash? Very likely, given the wholescale acceptance of contactless during this crisis.
  • Our children will build resilience, knowing that world crises happen, that humankind adapts to cope and survive and – eventually – moves on.
  • Some of the new ways of doing things may actually be better than the old ones. Compare a 30 minute music lesson by Skype in the comfort of one’s own home with spending 45 minutes travelling to and from a music school in the city’s worst rush hour traffic, arriving late, frazzled and harried.
  • All the things you have bought in the middle aisle of Lidl will finally come in useful (eg the hair cutting kit).
  • Your children will become (ahem) aware of your academic and sporting limitations.
  • Subscriptions will become a lifeline. Without realising it at the time, taking out a Beano subscription for the older child a month or two ago was probably one of the best decisions I made this year. We will now have no fear of going without (whew).
  • With work the only distraction from domestic life for many employees working from home, employers could well see enormous productivity gains in the coming months.
  • If your job/income has been unaffected by the pandemic, you will probably save money in the short term (nothing to spend it on bar essentials).
  • When this is over, many businesses may have a wholescale rethink about their need for bricks and mortar premises.
  • There’s been some clever marketing. The other day a well known fashion brand emailed me a style edit for “self-quarantining track days”. Without question, fitted clothing may feel slightly uncomfortable following a prolonged period of leisure wear.
  • The vast majority of people will be wonderful. So far, we have seen a statesmanlike Taoiseach, temporarily out of work chefs preparing food for the elderly and well known – and not so well known – people and businesses sharing their knowledge, skills and services for free (Audible, Joe Wickes, NowTV, the entire GAA community to name a few). This will be remembered.
  • For the small minority who haven’t been so wonderful, a new term has been coined. No comment.IMG-20200322-WA0004 (002)
  • Above all, amidst all this awfulness, humour – some of it dark – will prevail. As people attempt to make sense of the insensible and come to terms with a few months of life a little less lived, sharing a joke to lighten the mood can feel therapeutic and helps to maintain connectivity with friends and family. (Just don’t forget to send me the best ones.)

Coming to the end of our second week of housebound-ness, we have now settled into  our new pared back daily routine. Making the most of the new normal has taken some adjustment but we are aiming to enjoy it as much as possible within the confines of our environment. When we emerge from this, we at least hope to feel rested, a little more educated and very much appreciative of all that regular life has to offer.

Stay positive; stay healthy.