FIRST PERSON | As a postal worker, my job is essential. I worry about spreading COVID-19 every day | CBC News

This First Person article is the experience of Thomas Dunford, a letter carrier for Canada Post who works and lives in Montreal. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

There are two tensions ever present in the minds of essential workers who must deal with the public. Are my clients a danger to my health — and am I a vector of community spread of a potentially deadly virus?

When all but the most essential of businesses were shuttered in face of fatally unknowable danger last spring, the post office didn’t have that option. Postal carriers are the last, local link in a global supply chain to bring goods from around the world to your door. Parcel volumes equalled that of the holidays but stayed elevated for months.

Postal workers, just as other essential labourers, took the task of serving our communities in stride. At the height of our collective confusion, my peers and I took upon ourselves risks impossible to know in the fog of war. At great peril to ourselves, our loved ones and our neighbours, we carried out our mandate to benefit the public interest.

Going about my day, I hurriedly shuffled innumerable parcels to seemingly every door between snippets of the daily governmental health briefings heard from my truck’s radio. As researchers began to grapple with our shared foe, I felt increasingly better about my odds: I’m not in a high-risk group. Relatively young and healthy, I was breathing a little easier knowing that if I were to catch the contagion it wouldn’t likely pose an imminent danger to my life.

Considering the circumstances, I’m lucky. I felt it was my duty to serve those less assured. Meanwhile, news about the human catastrophe unfolding in CHSLDs (Quebec’s long-term care centres) began spilling into the press. It was around this time that I was running a route which delivered to a CHSLD.

My hands were red and raw with ceaseless sanitizing. Every imaginable precaution was taken as I gingerly entered the halls of the seniors’ residence. I was breathlessly swift, dodging between doors and vestibules, masked up and touching no surfaces by hand. I’d avoid contact with any soul by berths well in excess of the recommended two metres.

On welcome mats I would drop packages, knock, then retreat to the other end of the hall before the proprietor could answer the door. The novelty of this adapted service would’ve been amusing if the situation weren’t so mortally serious.

Although the stakes were high, it was in these moments the humanity of the situation would shine through the oppressive pandemic gloom. My thankful clients would briefly pop their heads out of the door frame to happily acknowledge the receipt of their goods. Care packages from distant family members, literature for the blind, critical medications and much more.

Crinkles around the corner of the eyes would reveal the smiles hidden behind our masks. We would often exchange brief pleasantries and concern for one another; a highlight of my day when social contact was so scarce. Bringing vital supplies and support to our most vulnerable, isolated citizens in these troubled times is humbling to say the least.

Worryingly, the postal depot where I work took a long while to get up to speed with hygiene measures. Canada Post Corporation and Canadian Union of Postal Workers negotiated together to bring changes to our work environment. Unfortunately, the gears of bureaucracy turn much more slowly than the pace of scientific discovery.

The mask mandate indoors at our sorting facility came months after they were required in other indoor spaces. Cost and a shortage of global supply meant that well after it was clear that masks reduce spread of the virus, it was business as usual within our operations. Disinfecting of our trucks and workstations was stepped up; efforts bolstered by our tireless caretaking staff who have also borne the brunt of the waves of infection.

While many such measures were adopted to make our work areas less crowded and prone to community spread, not everyone follows those rules.

The strain between worker autonomy and the uniform application of health measures has had some drastic implications. Until recently, the type and quality of masks wasn’t strictly regulated. Supervisors seemingly never crack down on those who wear their masks improperly, if at all, despite clear guidelines. (In a statement to CBC News, Canada Post said it “work[s] in partnership with our union safety representatives to ensure employees are not only aware of these measures, but are strictly following them.)

Listening closely to the chatter between the aisles of workstations betrays the existence of COVID deniers among us.

Not-so-quiet conspiratorial whispers of a “plandemic” can be heard from those who believe the virus to be no worse than seasonal influenza. These doubters are certainly in a minority, but nonetheless pose a danger to even the strictest of adherents to protocol. To compound my personal concerns, more and more of my colleagues are testing positive for COVID-19.

News of a new case breaks sporadically. This prompts a brief shutdown of our facilities lasting only a few hours as a special team is brought in to disinfect equipment, donning full hazmat suits. When the shock troops leave, it’s back to our routine.

When Quebec first announced that essential workers would be prioritized for vaccinations, I was elated. The spectre which haunted my everyday shuddered. Imagine, then, the depths of my disappointment when delivery personnel were not considered among that cohort. A year ago hailed as heroes but presently not worth considering. With new, more infectious variants of the virus in circulation my confidence in my ability to work safely in public has been gravely undermined.

With all the contacts I make throughout my day, with co-workers and citizens alike, how can I be sure that I don’t become an infamous super-spreader?

I deliver mail and packages on the street where I reside. I shop at the businesses I serve; my clients are my neighbours. Never has the link between individual health and community health been laid so bare.

As public servants, mail carriers touch the lives of all Canadians across the spectrums of needs and vulnerabilities. Advocating for the vaccination of all essential workers is advocating for all those we serve.

CBC Quebec welcomes your pitches for First Person essays. Please email [email protected] for details.

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