Working in the wake of coronavirus

We adapt. We carry on.

Perhaps this may end up as one of the most profound lessons of the pandemic: how the world, with astonishing speed, found new ways and new priorities as everything changed. The cadence of life is suddenly different. Slower at times. Then suddenly frantic with a crush to fill a shopping cart. Or panicked with the realization that someone you love may be infected with the novel coronavirus.

Yet the forward momentum of life is always there, demanding attention. Across cultures, languages and situations in life, it beats with the same urgency: how to make it through this crisis and emerge on the other side.

In seven places around the world — New Orleans; Paris; Kyiv, Ukraine; Vancouver, B.C.; Yuba City, Calif., Columbus, Ohio; and Dazhou, China — The Washington Post explored that question. Photojournalists chronicled one person during one day in a pandemic with many days and many uncertainties ahead.

Some have found ways to keep going on jobs that help feed a city or keep it clean. Others reinvented their work lives online. Everywhere, though, is the gnawing worry of losing paychecks and income — a reality reinforced Thursday with the Labor Department reporting a record 3.3 million Americans applying for unemployment benefits last week.

“We are at war with a virus that threatens to tear us apart — if we let it,” the director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told a special Group of 20 gathering on Thursday.

“Fight, unite, ignite,” he said.

New Orleans

Sanitation worker

Isaac Brooks, 51, has worked in the garbage collection business in New Orleans since 1989. After 16 years as a “hopper,” spending 12-hour shifts lifting trash cans and jumping on and off the back of the truck, he worked his way to a supervisor position at Metro Service Group.

He is responsible for running a daily collection crew that operates throughout several different neighborhoods in downtown New Orleans. Trash collection has its inherent hazards, but Brooks and his co-workers are taking extra precautions against the coronavirus.

Metro Service Group recently furnished extra protective equipment to all its employees in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus. Hoppers, drivers and maintenance workers have all been ordered to wear disposable paper masks or cotton bandannas over their faces and extra rubber gloves underneath their standard protective gloves.

Brooks’s crew members started their twilight shift by adhering closely to the new safety guidelines, but as the sun rose higher in the sky and the temperature climbed, they complained how hot it was under the new masks and gradually abandoned them.

“We are like first responders. If we didn’t pick up garbage and stuff, there would be germs all around.” He said. “I have to do this.”

Paris

Baker

Florian Berthe, 39, opened his bakery in Paris eight years ago in the 13th arrondissement, which includes party spots on the Seine and France’s main library.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Berthe has been able to get essential ingredients he needs, especially flour. But when it comes to what’s needed for pastries and sandwiches, he must keep up on what is available.

With his four employees, he’s been more strict and direct. He’s explained the tougher economic realities facing the bakery.

Customers have to wait outside. Only two at a time are allowed in. And there’s a distance to respect. He has added plastic dividers from the ceiling for another layer of protection and of separation between customers and employees.

“We have to repeat ourselves frequently to make them learn the importance of respecting these new ways of shopping in our bakery,” he said. “At the same time, a lot of our customers are understanding when we don’t have something they want. They just tell us: ‘That’s okay. I’ll just take what you have to offer.’”

Something else has changed during the pandemic. “Habits have gone out the window,” he said. New customers come in every day.

“Some take little; others buy a lot,” he said. “It’s very difficult to anticipate what we need on a day-to-day basis. The goal is to be as close as possible to a new equilibrium where we can feed people without throwing out anything at the end of the day.”

Asked how he sees his business evolving in the next few weeks, he said: “It’s like you’re driving a car and cut the engine. It continues down the road and it will stop slowly and on its own at some point.”

Kyiv, Ukraine

Cafe owners

Julia, 26, a filmmaker and photographer, and Roman, 29, a musician and veteran of the war in eastern Ukraine, are owners of Veterano Brownie, a cafe in Kyiv that serves coffee and brownies. It closed for eat-in service March 17 because of the quarantine to prevent the spread of the virus.

Restaurants and cafes in Ukraine are still allowed to offer delivery or takeout, so Veterano Brownie announced free delivery in Kyiv, letting Julia and Roman provide work for at least some of their staff. But they expect they might fully shut down.

“Since the quarantine started, we sleep much less and, most importantly, we returned to the beginning of our business," they said. "We have a start-up again, a rocket launch, everything is burning, we are doing everything at the same time. The pace is absolutely not quarantine-like. We feel that there is many times more work. Our worries for now: to stay afloat in this crisis, two of us, together with the team, together with the project. We worry about the global economic impact, how the industry will change and, of course, about the health-care system in Ukraine. The peak of the epidemic will be scary and painful.

“Today, our entire team are couriers, walkers and bikers, including us. It is our effort to engage the entire team and retain jobs. We are working to maintain the number of orders, but we don’t deceive ourselves with the hope that people would choose brownies over the essentials. We are preparing for different scenarios — both changing the format and reformatting the team. And yes, of course, it is a daily stress.”

Yuba City, Calif.

Pain Management

Audrey Emery, 27, is a single mom who works as a new patient coordinator at the pain management clinic Advanced Pain Diagnostic & Solutions.

The clinic, which is transitioning to mostly telemedicine appointments, is allowing Emery to bring her daughter to work while her school is closed due to the coronavirus. The company has five locations, but three have shut down. Emery is working to transition most patients to telemedicine appointments.

“I have to work. I don’t have any other option” Emery said. “And being in a doctor’s office means we are what they now call essential workers. When this is all over, we will have new patients that need to come in. And since I’m in pain management, it is still urgent that patients be seen during this.”

Vancouver, B.C.

Lumber mill worker

Byron Essert wants to stay in Canada. But now, everything is in question.

Essert, a U.S. citizen on a postgraduate work visa in Canada, was laid off by Vancouver Urban Timber as the coronavirus put Canada’s economy into a tailspin. According to Danny Hagge and Eric Savics, who co-own Vancouver Urban Timber, builders have postponed or canceled orders as they shut down their job sites. They also said building supply stores have closed completely and the phone at Urban Timber has stopped ringing.

Essert has Type 1 diabetes and has chosen to stay in Canada despite the U.S.-Canada boarder closing to nonessential travel. Essert believes the Canadian health-care system is superior and is less likely to be overwhelmed by coronavirus cases. But Essert is two months shy of the 12 months of continuous work in a specific field required to allow him to apply for the next step to becoming a permanent citizen of Canada. The mill is hoping to bring Essert back on after the crisis, but there is no timetable for when that could happen.

Essert noted how the virus has separated him from his loved ones and shifted his lifestyle to a reclusive one.

“Covid 19 has separated me from my family and friends, and forced my girlfriend and I out of her university housing situation," Essert wrote in an email. "My girlfriend returned to her home in Oregon and now that the borders between BC and USA have closed indefinitely I don’t know when the next time I will see her, my parents, my brother, grandparents, niece, and friends living in the United States.”

Columbus, Ohio

Wellness entrepreneur

Tobi Ewing, 27, is a painter, and yoga and meditation guide. She said her world was all about personal contact and interaction, calling herself an artist involved in the “practice of play, exploration and well-being.”

It all has been reinvented in the time of social distancing. The phrase is written in red on her wall calendar.

Her yoga classes now appear on the video app Zoom. With her partner, she ran what she called a “The Self Care cafe.” Ewing is now at home waiting for the crisis to ease.

“I genuinely love what I do. I am employed by yoga and painting, but those are things that I wanted my daily lifestyle to be cultivated with,” Ewing said. “It is what I am employed by, but It helps keep me sane.”

Dazhou, China

Travel monitor

(name changed to protect photographer’s identity)

There is a new job for officials in registry bureaus in China: keeping tabs on travelers’ journeys at train stations as coronavirus restrictions ease. At the train platforms in Dazhou — about 300 miles west of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected — health workers are on stand by in case they find someone who needs care or is infected. This is another job created during the crisis. No one knows how long it may be needed.

About this story

Photo editing by Chloe Coleman, Karly Domb Sadof and Olivier Laurent. Writing by Brian Murphy. Design and development by Jake Crump.

Share