Being a coronavirus volunteer brings out my inner spy | Clare Allan

Like millions of others whose regular job is deemed less than essential to the survival of others, I have wanted to find, in these strangest of times, a way to make myself useful.

A throat infection forced me into self-isolation as, outside, the crisis deepened. But on the first day I’m allowed to go out, there’s a call for NHS volunteers. I sign up together 749,000 others, and I also enrol with the Red Cross reserves and Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK, which supports local community groups. My first call to action comes from the People’s Army, a rapidly growing collection of my fellow residents of Islington, north London, most of whom have never met, liaising via WhatsApp to support those in need – be they vulnerable because of age or underlying health conditions, or left stranded by the recent closure of food banks due to the crisis.

The army, or at least my battalion of it, is commanded by Hazel Jhugroo, a 29-year-old stay-at-home mum, who lives with her six-year-old son. She WhatsApps me a shopping list and instructs me to deliver the goods to an address off Essex Road. When I get there, I’m to message her and she will tell me where to leave it. I stand in the spaced queue outside Budgens. No one looks at each other. It’s something I’ve noticed with the distancing rules: people avoiding eye contact, as though a stray glance could contaminate.

Once inside, I swerve up and down the aisles, grabbing items for my list, while maintaining a two-metre distance from fellow shoppers. It’s not until I am standing in the spaced checkout queue that a glance to double-check the list on my phone reveals my battery is on 14%. This might not seem critical, but I have noticed of later that my phone has a tendency to run down from 10% to zero in as many seconds. My basket is full of frozen goods: ice-cream, frozen peas and fish. I am a fool. A green recruit. I jog/walk all the way to Essex Road, sprint for the door (there are several flats), text Hazel, and my phone goes dead. I leave the bag on the step, stand back two metres, three for good measure, and wait. At last, the door opens, a face peers out. I wave, and a hand takes the bag. First mission accomplished.

At home, I pick up a power pack, plug in my phone and immediately receive my next instructions. A package has been left for me to collect behind a pillar on Upper Street. When I was maybe nine, I founded a spying society. I was Agent X, I remember, and persuaded two friends to be Agents Y and Z. We’d comb the recreation ground looking for clues, attempt to decode a shopping list dropped on the muddy path beside the allotments. Adult life has proved less thrilling, until now, until this. I collect the package, marked with my name and left by an unseen hand behind the pillar.

Next up, another shopping list, for Charles, who lives off City Road. Charles’s list is very specific. This particular bread from the Polish deli, this yoghurt from the Turkish shop. I like this. I like Charles, though I’ve never met him. I like the fact he trusts me with such detail, trusts me to understand that details are important, that our lives are stitched together with small preferences. I determine that in his isolation Charles will have as many of his preferences as possible, and deliver his shopping with a feeling of satisfaction.

The rest of the day is spent collecting care packages – vegetables, milk, bread, polenta cake – donated by various shops and cafes, and delivering them to those in need. My trail crisscrosses Islington like tangled string in the paws of a playful kitten. Heads poke out of upper-floor windows, entryphones issue disembodied thanks, two children wave down from a balcony near Old Street roundabout.

Next morning, out early with my dog, I meet a young woman in jogging pants and we briefly chat from a distance. How are you finding it? I ask. Not good. She doesn’t want to stay in. They should just let us get it, she says to me, survival of the fittest. I stare at her but she doesn’t appear to be joking. Nor to appreciate the irony that she is talking to someone pushing an ageing three-legged dog in a buggy.

I think of Charles and his particular list, of the millions like him and not at all like him, the face at the window, the hand round the door, each life inestimably precious. I think of the thousands striving to help them, and in doing so, helping ourselves. For there is no “us” and “them” in this, I think. Just “us”. And we will see each other throughit.

  • Some names have been changed

  • Clare Allan is an author and creative writing lecturer who writes on mental health issues