The U.S. retailing community is totally immersed in the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, you would be hard put to find any other segment of American society so completely and effectively involved in this international crisis.
Walk into a CVS drug store, a Walmart Supercenter or a Kroger grocery store and you are immediately met by a staff member hiding behind a mask and wearing protective gloves. Often as not, the few customers in the store are similarly clad, concerned enough to get dressed in this pseudo-Western garb yet uncertain if the outfit is effective or irreverent.
But it’s the staff that deserves the attention — and the accolades. Day after tedious day, amid the warnings, the announcements of impending doom, the aura of mingled boredom and gloom, these loyal employees come to work, do the chores assigned them, and believe that they are making a difference — perhaps a critical difference.
Through it all, their biggest cheerleaders are the people for whom they work, the men and women who operate and manage the retail enterprises for which they toil. No better example of this level of appreciation and, indeed, even awe at the staffers’ performance exists than that shown by Doug McMillon, Walmart’s CEO. His company has gone as far as buying an ad on “60 Minutes” last week to give McMillon the opportunity to once more laud the performance of his associates, people who live on minimum wage packages — as do most of the frontline retailing employees in America — yet never think twice about coming to work each day and doing, to the best of their ability, the jobs for which they are paid. Moreover, they do those jobs cheerfully, without rancor and without complaint — simply because that is what they do for a living.
Many try to joke or make small talk — to reasonably good effect. Many others, when asked, admit they are both bored and frightened. But only when asked. And only reluctantly.
Ask them when they believe this pandemic, this medical emergency, will end and they admit that they just don’t know. Ask them if it wouldn’t be easier on them, their friends and their families if they just stayed indoors, self-quarantining, as they have been repeatedly asked to do, and, as likely as not, they will respond by telling you that the idea never entered their mind. Those few who do admit that other members of their households have broached the idea of remaining indoors claim that it’s easier to make such a request than to honor one.
So day after day, night and noon, these thousands of employees come to the stores they know, appreciate and, yes, love, to greet their customers, shoppers who expect these staffers to show up and who show their gratitude, with word and deed, for the staffers’ presence. It is, after all, what they do.
The problem with all this is that Americans are dying. They are dying faster than even the most sophisticated adding machine can tally, faster than the most intelligent human being can comprehend, faster than any of us can get our minds around. And the prognosis? It will get worse before it gets better. How much worse? How quickly? For how long? Nobody knows — or, those few who think they know aren’t saying.
America has done itself no good during this epidemic. The country, our country, forever in the forefront of any of mankind’s endeavors, finds itself behind countries whose names we can’t even spell and whose locations are “somewhere out there.” We’re No. 1, as we are accustomed to being, but in this case that position is merely the way the world tallies the casualties from this deadly virus.
There’s certainly blame enough to go around here — official blame, governmental blame, medical blame, industrial blame. Why, we ask, weren’t our levers of power and control on to this sooner? Why didn’t we, as a nation, glom onto the early signs that this event would be serious, deadly, cataclysmic? Why didn’t we, as a nation, live up to the precedent, the motto, the creed that is America: When trouble comes, we’ll be there — first.
Amid the name calling, blame laying, backbiting and second-guessing, one fact will not disappear, will not go away, will not take a back seat to the inaction or misaction of the people who run the various segments of our society: They may look like drug store cowboys, but the men and women behind those masks and protective gloves act like all the Western heroes we have cultivated, adored and worshipped since we were kids: They are the Lone Ranger.