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A sign in a supermarket requesting shoppers to keep distance from each other/Photo: Femi Awoniyi

Coronavirus: How to protect yourself from infection in the supermarket

Going to the supermarket to shop for daily necessities is one of the unavoidable chores we all still have to do even as we strictly abide by the stay-at-home order of the authorities, one of the restrictions imposed on social life in Germany and many other countries around the world to slow the spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19). How do we protect ourselves when we go shopping is one of the questions we’re confronted with? The African Courier reports on the measures in force and what shoppers should be aware of.

Supermarkets in Germany have introduced various measures to protect their employees and customers against the coronavirus. These include strictly controlling the number of shoppers in the store at any time to avoid too many people inside that will make it difficult for shoppers to maintain a minimum distance of 1.5 m from each other. It has also been mandatory for the staff of stores and their customers to wear a mouth-nose covering since 29 April.

Glass panels have also been installed to separate shoppers and the cashiers at the checkout counters to reduce contact between customers and employees. And some supermarkets encourage their customers to pay with the card instead of cash.

But how sensible are such measures at all? And how can I really protect myself from being infected with the coronavirus when shopping?


Social distancing in the supermarket

The new coronavirus (Covid-19) is mainly transmitted from person to person via a droplet infection – in other words, by inhaling viruses that an infected person passes on, for example, when speaking or coughing.

According to the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s agency for disease control and prevention, infection can also emanate from people who have no or only mild and unclear symptoms. Moreover, infected persons can also infect others during the incubation period of the virus (of up to 14 days) when they themselves are still unaware that they’re infected with the virus.

In view of these facts, experts say shoppers should keep a safe distance of 1.5 to 2 meters from other people in the supermarket. The distance markings on the floor when paying are therefore also useful.

Also, the fact that there are not too many customers crowding in one market can actually help prevent infections between customers.

Experts’ advice: Basically, stay away from other people as much as possible – whether in line, at the cash register or between the shelves.

Going to the supermarket to shop for daily necessities is one of the unavoidable chores we all still have to do even as we strictly abide by the stay-at-home order of the authorities/Photo: AfricanCourierMedia


Can I become infected with goods that have previously been touched by employees of the supermarket or other customers?

According to a US study, the new coronavirus can survive up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless-steel surfaces, and up to 24 hours on paper.

However, most health experts agree the chances of contracting the virus through a tin of milk or other products at the supermarket are low. 

German scientists doubt that the results of the US laboratory study can be literally translated one-to-one in reality. If the pathogens come through droplets of cough on surfaces such as a pack of toilet paper and from there via a smear infection on the hand of a customer, the cough secretion comes into contact with the acidic environment of the skin. According to experts such as virologist Christian Drosten of the Charité medical university in Berlin, this will probably significantly reduce the risk of infection.

Experts’ Advice: Nevertheless, you should also observe the general hygiene rules here: Avoid touching your mouth, nose or eyes when shopping and wash your hands thoroughly after shopping.Washing your fruit and vegetables is advised, as usual, to protect against other bugs.

By the way: According to the current state of knowledge, you cannot become infected with goods such as toys or clothing imported from China or other countries heavily affected by Covid-19.


Should I rather not use a shopping trolley?

In some supermarkets, the use of a shopping trolley is now mandatory so that the supermarket can keep an eye on the current number of customers in the store and thus avoid excessive customer density. However, this carries another risk: If trolleys or baskets are not disinfected after each use, viruses from the predecessor can adhere to them.

Shoppers can protect themselves from potentially contaminated surfaces, such as shopping trolleys, by wiping them. Some supermarkets already have disinfectant wipes available to sanitise these surfaces.

Experts’ Advice: Avoid touching your face while shopping or eating with your bare hands afterwards. Wash your hands thoroughly immediately after shopping. If you are still on the move, use a hand disinfectant.

Shoppers queue to enter a supermarket in Berlin. The social distancing measure requires that there are not too many in a shop at the same time to reduce the risks of shoppers infecting themselves/Photo: Screenshot/Sat 1


Is there a risk of infection from cash?

Contactless payments are highly encouraged to reduce direct contact between supermarket staff and customers. In some supermarkets, customers are implored to pay with an EC or credit card instead of cash, if possible. How meaningful this measure is in the fight against the coronavirus has not been clearly determined. One thing is certain: the virus can survive on banknotes too.

However, it is not clear whether the number of pathogens stuck on the banknotes is enough for an infection. According to experts, the likelihood of catching coronavirus on banknotes or coins is very low. “I would largely forget the virus stuck on the coin,” said virologist Christian Drosten. Like influenza viruses, the corona viruses are enveloped viruses that are “extremely sensitive” to drying out, he opines.

Experts’ Advice: Nevertheless, it can do no harm to make contactless payments by money card or mobile phone. If you pay with cash, make absolutely sure that your hand and the cashier’s hand do not touch. Because, like flu viruses, Covid-19 can also be transmitted via the hands as a result of smear infection. Moreover, do not touch your mouth, nose or eyes with unwashed hands. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap after handling cash notes.


How useful are protective shields at the checkout?

Many markets have now installed plexiglass panes at the cash registers to protect cashiers and customers. That actually makes sense, experts say. Because the glass not only keeps both sides at a sufficient distance from each other. They also protect against droplet infection.

Also, make sure to keep enough distance from the cashiers when packing the goods and paying.

In some supermarkets, customers are implored to pay with an EC or credit card instead of cash, if possible /Photo: AfricanCourierMedia


What would a mask requirement in the supermarket bring?

Advice on whether we should or shouldn’t wear face masks to protect ourselves against Covid-19 has seemed unclear from day one. Although many governments around the world – and even the World Health Organization – did not recommend the use of face masks by everyone.

But new evidence looking at the way the novel coronavirus spreads from person to person has made many governments take a second look at the matter. Health experts suggest masks are only necessary in preventing people who already have coronavirus from spreading it to others.

However, Germany’s Federal Government does not want to introduce an obligation to wear a mask in supermarkets along the lines of Austria. Such protection is “perhaps a useful addition to the hygiene rules that are already in force,” said government spokesman Steffen Seibert at the end of March. This should not lead to “a false feeling of security”, experts say.

How else can I protect myself when shopping?

In the current situation, there can hardly be too many defensive measures – which also protect against many other pathogens. In the supermarket, make sure to cough and sneeze intelligently – rather in the crook of the arm instead of the palm of your hand. Observe the minimum distance of 1.5 meters from other people. Wash your hands regularly with soap after you have been away.


Important note: The information provided in this article does not replace professional advice by the public health authorities or your doctor.



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