Vittles 6.4 - Shopping While Vulnerable

Online Shopping During Coronavirus: A Hierarchy of Vulnerability

One thing I’m sure there will be essays and books about post-pandemic is the surrealism of life under coronavirus. In fact, Slavoj Žižek has probably already written it. The idea of being confined indoors by an external force has proven a fruitful trope for surrealist filmmakers, from Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, where a bunch of non-socially distancing aristocrats become trapped in their mansion for absolutely no reason at all, to Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth in which three grown children are held captive in their house through the fear of the outside world their father has instilled in them. For many of us life under quarantine has a this strong element of the surreal embedded in it. We confine ourselves, looking out into a world which seems completely normal; we treat everyone like they have an invisible force field around them, walking in zig zags through streets and parks. Watching movies, even those released this year, is strongly surreal, already dated by the gathering of more than two people in the same room as if it was in sepia. It’s only when you go out and see you can still get on a bus, on a train, that you realise that the world is still running without you. It’s tempting to carry on business as usual, but of course that’s why the virus is so dangerous.

Those of us who find this new normality surreal are, of course, the privileged ones. We are not the key workers who are unable to take time off, nor are we the delivery drivers and food workers who find themselves working overtime to pick up the slack which the closure of restaurants have left. We are also not the most vulnerable, for whom a life trapped inside has never been a stretch of the imagination. Here I am talking about those who are disabled, either physically or through the prison of their own depression, the elderly who are either housebound or in care homes, those who are incarcerated. It is the most vulnerable who have always needed the structures that we are now relying on. So what happens to them when we put strain on the system?

Yesterday the Guardian reported that many disabled and elderly people have been left without food because the government have excluded them from the government’s list of people vulnerable to coronavirus. Having talked back and forth by email with writer Nikky Catto who wrote today’s newsletter, it came as absolutely no surprise. Nikky’s piece states clearly how what we are seeing today with who and who doesn’t have access to online shopping has been a decade in the making, because for the last ten years our government has constantly redefined what it even means to be vulnerable, excluding people from benefits, wrongly labeling people ‘fit to work’ to avoid their moral obligation to provide for the most vulnerable in society. The Guardian piece mentions people who have no help with food and medication, people who are unable to eat properly, people who are terrified of starving in their homes. And these are only the ones we’re hearing about - there will be deaths caused by coronavirus in the same way there were deaths caused by austerity which will have no mention of it on their death certificates.

If you are able bodied and want to know how to support people then do read to the end of Nikki’s piece. There are small changes all of us can make which can benefit those who need it most. And maybe when this is over, we can carry those changes into a better, newly-surreal world.

Online Shopping During Coronavirus: A Hierarchy of Vulnerability, by Nikky Catto

While the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered many people’s day to day lives, there are other people whose routines are more or less the same, even if it feels like they’ve fallen into an alternate universe under lockdown. These are people who are already disabled or have underlying health issues, as well as the elderly and those suffering depression and loneliness. Needless to say, these people are already familiar with spending long periods indoors away from parks, bars and restaurants. 

I am one of them. I have ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome) which is a fluctuating chronic illness that causes day to day issues as well as relapses of up to six months during which I become housebound due to severe fatigue, muscle weakness and other neurological issues. Around 250,000 people have ME/CFS in the UK, about one in every 260 people. 

Since I live alone and am often too unwell to interact during relapse, I’m quite used to not seeing people for prolonged periods of time. I have a system of how to feed and care for myself during this and due to the unpredictability of the illness I’m always prepared to get stuck indoors at a moment’s notice. My condition also involves juggling over 100 food intolerances, including basic ingredients like onions and garlic, so I already rival a wartime wife in how to stretch food into interesting combinations with minimal effort, ingredients and washing up. This confluence of side-effects has unwittingly made me almost pandemic proof! 

My condition is stable enough that for the last few years I’ve worked from home and multi-task shopping with other trips out. Living in Brixton I often use the market to grab fresh food, get the gossip and leave the bulky or heavy stuff for an occasional online shop. It’s been a pretty good system. I also have loved ones who can grab essentials for me, but it’s a big pressure for them playing intolerance roulette so I spare them where I can.

As soon as lockdown loomed I took a trip out to stock up before the nation collectively lost its mind. I endured one queue in Tesco and then spent the rest of the day going from shop to shop, those small independents that do amazing things for their customers, especially the regulars who support them day in day out. Unfortunately I’m high risk. I knew as I was talking to them that I was going home that day and probably wouldn’t leave it again for three months.

Now a few weeks in, I need to shop again. Usually my back up plan for both groceries and gossip during a relapse is home delivery. I tend to use Sainsburys as both their app and their drivers work best for me. I don’t know if it’s just South London luck, but their drivers tend to have the gift of the gab I like best. But suddenly everyone else has caught onto my trick. Online deliveries are harder to get than a reservation at Sushi Tetsu. The system is collapsing under the pressure and the supermarkets are trying to prioritise the vulnerable. 

But vulnerable is a nebulous word. 

‘Vulnerable’ is often imposed onto people simply handling extra shit that the average person doesn’t have to because the world has forgotten or refuses to adapt to them. Add in the current government categories of ‘extremely vulnerable’ and ‘high risk’ for specific conditions and we have a hierarchy of vulnerability that it is helping very few. All the major supermarkets said they would prioritise the elderly, vulnerable and NHS staff in store and online. This is to be applauded but there was no information how being vulnerable could be proved. Age and employment both have easy documentation but vulnerability is much more vague. I only discovered there was a government register for the higher risk category via the Sainsbury’s app which begs the question why Mike Coupe, the outgoing CEO of J. Sainsbury, seems to care more about my health than the government, NHS or my local authority? I registered ‘just in case’ like sneaking into a soft launch unsure which category I fitted into, if any.

Am I a ‘vulnerable’ person? I receive the highest rate of Personal Independence Payment proved over a 68 page form, 225 pages of evidence and a tribunal in front of a judge. But since 2010, the coalition and Conservative governments have brought in multiple delays and complications to the sickness benefits system to make them harder to claim. I was originally turned down for PIP because I applied lip balm in my assessment unaided. Millions of other people have lost their claims for PIP and the out of work sickness benefit Employment Support Allowance (ESA) with appeal times taking up to 18 months to be heard even before the system shut down due to social distancing. Others have been pushed onto Universal Credit as ESA was merged into it as part of ‘welfare reform’. This blurred the lines of illness and caring roles even before the nation’s self-employed discovered it was their only option and the system crashed under unprecedented demand. The vulnerable blended into the needy.

So how do we prove these vulnerabilities in store? Despite the continued insulting question of  whether you are ‘registered disabled’ there is no official membership card for the ‘vulnerable’. Should we have to bring our intimate government documents to be read by supermarket staff to get into Iceland at 8am? Will my TfL ‘Please Offer Me Seat’ badge work for a shopping basket too? 13 million people in the UK, about one in five of the population, have a disability or chronic condition. The majority do not claim any kind of benefit as they do not count as vulnerable most of the time, but are suddenly exposed by coronavirus. This ironically creates a survival of the fittest stampede within the “vulnerable community”. Those less privileged  - those who have disabilities that make communication more difficult, or who live in poverty which means they never afford a minimum order or lack the financial or technological inclusion to go online - are being trampled over, even by people like me.

Many of the supermarkets are prioritising shoppers who are existing customers, so in lieu of the NHS or DWP telling us what the plan is our loyalty cards are being used to gain crucial access to online slots. Sainsbury’s was the only supermarket which had an automated phone line where I could be proactive. Within 48 hours I was on their list with a polite concise text and guidelines for fair usage. In comparison the government texted me a bland platitude at 11.50am on the 1st April saying they would share my info with the NHS and supermarkets and to wait for my GP to contact me. No time frames, no info how to contact my local authority if I required urgent support. I’ve sent more precise texts to Uber drivers while drunk. Still, I’m relieved. I have a back-up plan again because a minimum wage driver is risking their health for me and because I can afford to buy online. I am glad for me but guilty for others who still do not have this option. I’m also excited to know I will see a human being again before June.

How can you, as a non-disabled person, help the system further? Stop booking online deliveries if you can use click and collect instead and pop into store briefly for your order. Don’t police who is using the store at certain hours. Most disabilities are invisible and it's funny how disabled people only become visible when someone thinks we are getting ‘special treatment, a symptom of a culture of distrust that has formed around anyone who shows vulnerability in an individualistic society. Do safely contact anyone who you could pool a shopping trip with. Put some food in the foodbank point or donate cash. Support local businesses by shopping at independents but also recognise that supermarkets are physically more accessible to the elderly and disabled. Share any local delivery schemes you know of. Be kind to shop workers.

And wake up to the fact the big retailers are stepping up in a crisis instead of the government because the nation has allowed the welfare state to be eroded for a decade. The chickens at our doors aren't being delivered by supermarkets, they're just our attitude towards community finally coming home to roost. 

Nikky Catto writes as Miss South ( and is a freelance writer and recipe developer. She is also a trustee of Brixton Advice Centre ( who offer benefits and legal advice to anyone living or working in Brixton and Herne Hill. She was paid for this newsletter.

The illustration for this piece was done by Helen Hugh-Jones whose work you can find on her website and Instagram. Helen was also paid for her illustration.

Please subscribe on Substack if you enjoyed this piece, and do consider supporting on Patreon which ensures all contributors are paid.