Hey Heather, it's me again.

Organizing chaos

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Hey Heather, it’s me again.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the situation that’s going on with COVID-19 and have been asking myself a bunch of questions in regards to how we could try to mitigate some of the negative impacts. The way I think of these problems is with the frame “Given the goal X and the current technologies they have, this institution could do Y”. You’ll probably be able to find counter arguments for suggestions I’m making but this is mostly to get the ideas out of my head. Maybe some could be useful. Regardless, they probably won’t take into account edge cases or maybe I’ll forget something obvious. Anyway, trying to take everything into account would make the ideas too rigid and you wouldn’t be able to apply them. Given the current situation, we need to be able to adapt faster.

With all that said, what is the current goal? Keep people away from each other. We want to reduce the number of intersection points between people.

Supermarkets and pharmacies, stores in general

Currently supermarkets and pharmacies are still open to the public. The problem with this is that you have a very high number of intersection points between people. Imagine an aerial view of a supermarket or pharmacy as a grid. And each customer that visits traces a certain path. From entrance, to items and then exit passing by a register. Maybe some pressed a few tomatoes to check ripeness. Maybe you squeeze an avocado or two. Maybe you pick up a can of soup and then put it back. How many people have you intersected with? Everyone’s trail overlaps at some point, whether it’s just at the entrance and exit. And then ask yourself how many people did they intersect with before going to the store?

Now what can you do? I’d suggest closing the doors, but not the store per se. Before 1916, grocery store transactions used to be over the counter. You would ask the grocer for something and he would get it from the inventory. Now if we go back to this model we still have the problem of large groups of people assembling in lines. Well in 1876 a patent for something called the telephone was awarded to Alexander Graham Bell. We could use this technology. Stores aren’t set up to handle a large influx of calls so we need to come up with a way to organize this quickly. Since we won’t be able to set up new phone systems for this situation the best way I can think of handling this would be for employees to use they’re own phones. You can’t just announce a series of phone numbers and publish them. That wouldn’t work. Well every store has at least one number that is public so that’s the one you can announce to customers and it’ll be the initial point of contact (IPC). This IPC will be used to take down the customer’s name, phone number and postal code. Here are the steps I’m proposing:

  1. Advertise initial point of contact (IPC) for customers to call letting them know that they’ll be leaving their name, phone number and postal code, and that someone will call them back. (Important to let them know that no credit card or banking information will be asked by phone at any point in time. You don’t want fraudsters to take advantage of this situation.)
  2. After designated employees block their phone number from displaying when making outgoing calls, have them call customers back and take down their grocery list and address.
  3. Have another set of employees take this list and go pickup the groceries.
  4. Call the customers back to confirm which items were available and the price of the order.
  5. Set up either delivery or pickup for groceries.

You may be wondering why you would ask for the postal code right off the bat. The reasoning behind this is that stores will probably need to primarily handle locals. It wouldn’t be viable if the St-Henri Super C were to cater to someone living on the Plateau. I’d assume stores would specify the postal codes that they serve. This would be the first parameter to help with overwhelming demand. The second would be to ask people to call on specified days in regards to their civic address. If your address is an even number, then you can call on even days. If your address is an odd number, then call on an odd number. Stores will have a limited number of orders they’ll be able to fulfill in a day and they’ll need to figure out what that is so they can be upfront with customers and manage their expectations.

Another consideration institutions will need to make is in regards to the use of employees phones. Since everyone will have different service providers and plans, they’ll need to decide how to reimburse the employees. The simplest way would be to offer to reimburse the monthly service fee and charges of employees who use their phone to contact customers. There could also be an agreement taken with service providers later on. But we’re looking at immediate action. Reimbursement of monthly service fee seems the quickest incentive.

In regards to having employees pick up list items. Decisions on how to go about it will need to be made. Do you take orders in the morning, and in the afternoon prepare them? What if you’re out of a product? Will there be a minimum on orders? Will you call the customer for substitution or just let them know you were out of the requested item? A lot of these questions will come up as things are happening since you might not be able to think of every case. Therefore there will need to be a person in charge who can answer the questions as they come in, and that can document and dispatch the information to those making the calls and preparing the orders.

Once the items are prepared, there will have to be a way to get the items into customer’s hands. Will they pick it up or will it be delivered? How will customers pay for items if the order is to be delivered? Will you support cash transactions? Who will deliver the item? If you have people just pick up their order, you still have a lot of intersections between people, but less than if the customers had gone to pick up the items themselves. If you deliver the items you need a method of payment set up. Will you accept checks? An e-transfer? This all seems a bit more complicated than having people come by and pick up the groceries. However again the aim is to reduce intersections. From what I’ve read, here in Montreal, taxis have been having trouble getting customers. Maybe there could be an agreement reached between pharmacies, supermarkets and the taxi industry. Supermarkets and pharmacies can add a fee as an item to the customer’s bill. This amount should already include the tip as to avoid having to input an amount on the payment terminal and you can just tap your card. Ideally there would be no cash transactions.

IGA already has a website where you can order online. However older people may have difficulties using it and I don’t think other supermarkets or pharmacies have this sort of system in place. This is the best I could come up with having thought about it for a bit. And maybe this could be partially implemented. This could be a service added and offered to people over the age of 45 for instance.

The problems I see with this proposal are as follows:

One thing that everyone will need to exercise is patience. Patience and empathy. People are worried. When you see empty shelves and long lines, when you watch the news and get updates every 5 minutes on the number of cases rising (which they will continue to do so), people get anxious even though water will continue running and there’s no expected food shortage. A lot of digital ink has been spilled over the frenzy surrounding toilet paper but I think the backlash misses the point. You could’ve written as much about tampons probably. The point is that people want to avoid going to store in the coming months so they stock up on different things. Maybe providing people with a delivery system from their local supermarket would help. It would also be easier to set limits on items by saying “I’m sorry, there is currently a limit of X packages of Y item per household”. Another way that you can help people with out of stock or limited items is to manage expectations “We’re expecting a delivery after X date” and making sure to leave enough buffer for unexpected delays. The important thing here is to tell the truth to the customers. The truth is reassuring. If you don’t have an item and don’t expect it anytime soon, let them know. You can offer alternatives too. Or let them know the frequency of your deliveries. Sure you don’t have Honey Nut Cheerios now, but you’re getting a delivery of dried oats tomorrow! People won’t necessarily be happy but at least they won’t fear a general food shortage.


A lot of people can work from home. No matter what corporate has been trying to convince itself of, you can probably work from home. This isn’t a luxury everyone has, but a lot do and it’s unfortunate that some large institutions are in denial.


I generally don’t go out much if at all. I did have plans that were thankfully postponed though. Had they not been I probably would’ve justified my decision to participate. Which just convinces me that we all justify whatever selfish acts we do by excusing ourselves “it’s fine, it’ll be fine.. Just this one time”. We’re very good at that. The point is that people will look to hang out in some way and will want to socialize. You give them the opportunity and they will use it and justify whatever decision they make. So how do we deal with this? A lot of people have recommended video chat or phone calls. Those are good ideas but part of the “sharing” aspect is missing in a way. What I mean by this is that if you meet at a bar, well you can talk about the bar, your order or other things you and the others interact with in that environment. So maybe adding some sense of novelty to a video chat would be good. The first step would be to plan the date and time of the call. And then to specify a topic of discussion. Here are a few thoughts that may be inspiring:

If you have a large group video chat, maybe plan to go around to everyone. I’ve never had a large group chat but I guess it’s probable that some people talk more and others are worried about interrupting. Others may be fine with just listening too so don’t put too much pressure on them to share.

Latency may make video calls annoying, so maybe just calling people on the phone. There’s also Slack. You can set up a time and date and then go chat. Maybe set up a Google Sheet. You can program colors to specific input and make that into a chat document. Why you may ask. I’d say, Why not? Does ICQ still exist? You could use ICQ. Remember the typing sound. That was nice.

What I’m worried about

Ventilators. I’m worried about a shortage in ventilators. In this case, I’m not sure how health services would deal with a shortage. If they don’t have enough machines, will they use a bag valve mask ? The answer to this should be yes. If they retort “We don’t have enough medical staff”, to that I say that’s not good enough. If a family member of mine needs a ventilator and the only thing available is a bag valve mask, you best believe I’m learning how to use one and manually pumping air into their lungs. I wouldn’t ask a medical professional to do this because of course they’ll need to tend to others. But if manually pumping air for a time is required then I can do that. No one wants it to come to this, but if our resources are limited, then we have to think this way. What if you can’t get an extra machine? If we know what the problem is and the proper and convenient machines are not available, what then? If a bag valve mask is available I can take the time to pump air.

And then what if there are no more bag valve masks? This question has made me try to come up with a way to make a bag valve mask at home. What could I use to make one? Since this disease affects the respiratory system, and medical professionals fear there will be a lack of equipment that deals with these issues then what is the most basic equipment we can make? How many people do you need that can manually pump on rotation? How many days will they need to do this? Who can do this? I’m young enough that if I get sick, I should be fine. Although, history with asthma has me doubting this a bit. Regardless, exposing myself to help a family member in need is something I’m willing to do since I have a higher chance of survival.

I’m not sure what the answers to a lot of these questions are and if any of this is actually realistic. But if we have people trying to think of solutions to mitigate problems we might be able to save a few lives.

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