Daniel Brooks

Everyone is allowed to drive around freely in Moscow Oblast, the area outside the city of Moscow, without a pass. Despite this new freedom, I am mostly at home. I’m not in the least bit confident that Covid-19 is under control, at least not in my neck of the woods.

On Sunday, I bought fruit at my favorite kioSk. I’m able to stand at the entrance to the kiosk and order what I want without going inside. At some point the need for fruit justifies a reasonable degree of risk. The woman manning the kiosk packs up the goods on my behalf. I pay without being within two meters of her. In days gone by I would haggle over the price and we would joke around a bit. Not any longer. These days, buying strawberries is a grim business.

While I was waiting for my fruit, two women pushed me aside and came into the kiosk. They could not be stopped. One faced me about 30 centimeters away while looking at a tray of cherries and chatting with her girlfriend. I asked her to keep her distance and stand outside. In fact, I told her to. The woman was not happy, and neither was her friend. Outside in the rain, they said “all we wanted to do was look around.” Two other people joined them, standing as close to one another as they could. COVID-19 has removed many things, caution and friendly discourse in public being two of them.

As the world enters the deepest economic downturn since the depression, and as I read about riots breaking out in my home country, I concluded that no one would notice if I were to venture out to buy a hamburger at a fast food outlet in the neighbourhood. It took courage but, I thought, what the hell. I felt certain that the biggest purveyor of hamburgers on the planet would provide a risk-free meal. With so many institutions in the world crumbling, surely fast food will stand strong, symbolizing man’s ability to endure and America’s place in the world, providing low priced, high calorie food, rich in fat, sugar and salt, served as fast as humanly possible. 

Feeling light-headed from the freedom of being able to drive around in a car, we arrived and stood in a long line with other hamburger lovers, waiting patiently for our food. I barked my order onto a screen, asking for the biggest hamburger on the menu, a strawberry milkshake, French fries and four deep fried shrimp. My mouth watered. My wife’s order was similar. The total cost was 1005 Roubles. As we pulled up to the window to get our food, we watched the staff inside making authentic American junk food. It smelled familiar, beef and potatoes being cooked, fattening and wrong. As we were enjoying the aroma of food being fried beyond recognition, we noticed the person making my wife’s tea was not wearing a mask. From our vantage point, looking into the take-out window, we saw four people wearing masks that didn’t cover their noses. Their masks were pulled sideways to allow air to flow freely in and out of their mouths. The discussion I had with the woman at the take-out window went like this:

“Why aren’t you wearing the mask over your nose.”

“It’s too hot and difficult to breathe”

“But what if you breathe, cough or sneeze on the food and have the virus? Is that safe?”

“We are not sick so there is no problem. People come here all the time to eat.”

“The woman who made our tea isn’t wearing any mask at all. Could you make a new cup of tea, wearing a mask fully covering your nose and mouth?”

“No”

The fast food outlet we visited is busy. Large SUV’s and other costly vehicles emerge from gated communities in the area with hungry people in them, longing for burgers. Because of the high demand, and to speed up the line, food is delivered in the parking lot by the restaurant staff, rather than at the take-out window. Needless to say, the two people bringing the food to our car were wearing masks that didn’t cover their noses. When I asked why, the answer was the same. Difficult to breathe and hot. The food delivery woman pointed out I wasn’t wearing a mask, sitting in my car, so why should she?

My first reaction was to call it pofigism. Those familiar with Russia might know that “pofig” is disinterest and indifference, combined. Pofigism is something I find attractive about Russia. The world can be in a tailspin. Russia takes it in stride. I’m not sure the correct description is pofigism in this case, inferring it is a purely Russian response. I’ve had conversations via zoom with friends and family around the world. Everyone I talk to tells me the same thing. In many countries, some people are careful. Many are not. It is more than indifference. The basic human need for close, personal contact is overcoming caution. This is a global phenomenon instead of a being a Russian one.

I have to wonder what might be going on at other food service and restaurant businesses in Russia. I for one will be cooking food at home for many months to come. It might have been an over-reaction to throw away all that junk food without looking inside the bag, let alone eating it. I am glad I did. Not worrying about the possible repercussions justified the loss of 1005 Roubles. Hamburgers and fries will sadly have to wait.

I contacted the General Manager of the fast food chain on Linkedin and gave him a brief report. He promised to jump on it. I am sure he will. I might go by and order a cup of coffee someday. Perhaps in 2021, when this thing blows over.

It comes to mind that demand will soon be high for inspectors, secret shoppers and people who enforce social distancing at retail and food outlets. Job openings will come up for skilled people enforcing the rules about wearing masks, gloves, disinfecting shared surfaces and other irritating regulations. Someone younger and less risk averse will have to do it. I for one am staying home.

Daniel Brooks

2 June 2020