I’m writing on the first Saturday of the Coronapocalpyse. I just returned from a shopping trip in town.
The laundromat and dry cleaners are open. The UPS store is open. Target, Marshalls, McDonald’s, and the hardware stores are open. The farmers’ market is selling pies. Dunkin’ Donuts is doing a brisk business in coffee and the usual fare. CVS is welcoming all.
All grocery stores are open. But for the empty shelves that usually hold toilet paper, everything else is stocked up. Veggies. Meat. Milk. Soups. Cosmetics. Trucks are arriving to restock shelves after brisk sales of just about everything.
Automotive places are changing oil, repairing issues, and taking new customers. Antique malls are hocking wares. Coffee shops are serving lattes and muffins. Restaurants have lunch and drinks. Clothing stores are holding special sales on winter clothing as they always do this time of year. Gas stations are doing business. People are driving around, walking around, greeting each other in a friendly way, smiling at each other.
It’s normalcy all around, which is important because if you had only been holed up in your home and watching TV, you might believe that the world outside is in total pandemonium. It seems like many people are pushing for that or even think complete panic is justified. Instead what we are seeing is a sense of calm caution. Social distance. No handshakes. Big smiles instead. Lines at sinks in public bathrooms where people are washing hands. Hand sanitizer is everywhere.
Otherwise, there is calm. No one is freaking out. The shelves are stocked up so you don’t see hoarding.
I’m grateful for all of this. The people who make this possible are heroes. They are probably preventing pandamonium. So long as people feel that essential needs can be met, they maintain civility and morality (which is always a casualty in panics), giving us all a much greater chance of getting through this.
It would be so easy to join the “shut down everything” chorus that you see online. How grossly irresponsible such demands are! In any case, most businesses are refusing to do so. And so far as I can tell, all the employees and certainly the customers in these places are happy for the opportunity to serve. And serve they do: enterprise is performing an amazing public service right now, and getting no praise for it in the media, so far as I can see.
You say: but they are all profiting from pandemic disease! I say: I hope so. They should all be justly rewarded for their service.
Also, while millions of people are extremely worried about losing their jobs, the people working today have an assurance that their businesses can continue to meet payroll because they are doing commerce. People are talking about survival right now but having a job and keeping the income flowing is also surviving.
Of course you could say all these activities are low risk because they involve only small gatherings, whereas many places have banned gatherings over a certain size (how that is Constitutional is another question). But in the United Kingdom, they have gone the extra step of maintaining calm by not banning sports events, concerts, and the like.
The Wall Street Journal reports:
Britain isn’t alone in taking a more restrained approach. The Canadian government has also held off banning mass gatherings, although several of the country’s provinces have announced their own tougher measures. Germany is also proving far less interventionist than other European nations.
I don’t know what should and shouldn’t be shut down. But neither does the government have some special magical access to information on risk probabilities and the proper way forward. In fact, government is the last institution that should be making this judgment. Government acts out of self-interest; enterprise acts in the public interest. The obvious answer here is to leave the decision to private actors who are in the best position to make a good judgment on what should shut and what should open.
I do know that the more commercial life can continue as cautionary normalcy, the more we’ll all be in a position to get through this. The less economic damage is done. The more people keep their jobs. The less human suffering there will be.
The way to make an emergency worse is to shutter the shops and jettison commercial transactions of the goods and services we depend on for the good life and for survival itself. Commerce is society’s lifeblood. Nothing is gained from forcibly cutting it off.
In normal times, we take all of this for granted. We pick up meat and veggies from the store without a thought. We buy medicines and health aids routinely without consciousness that these things don’t have to exist. We go to the hardware store as if it were a chore, something we must do to repair the sink and get lightbulbs.
Take it all away and then we will see what the real apocalypse looks like. We would take an unnerving and scary pandemic and turn it into complete social collapse. This is a reality that none of us have ever faced and, god willing, we never will. And we won’t so long as we leave it to the discretion of commercial establishments and consumers to make their own choices. Take away that freedom and all we are left with is the barbarism of material deprivation and poverty.
And so I smiled and said thank you to every employee stocking shelves, running the cash registers, mailing my packages, taking my dry cleaning, and selling me bleach wipes. Blessed are those who eschew the crazy demand to “shut down everything” and instead continue to serve the people.