The coronavirus pandemic is defining for the world what is “essential” and what things we really cannot do without, even though we might not need them for survival.
Authorities in many places are determining what shops and services can remain open, in a bid to slow the spread of the virus.
They are also restricting citizens from leaving their homes. Stay-at-home orders or guidance are affecting more than one-fifth of the world’s population.
This has left many contemplating an existential question: What, really, is essential?
What is essential?
Whether it is in Asia, Europe, Africa or the United States, there is general agreement – health care workers, law enforcement, utility workers, food production and communications are generally exempt from lockdowns.
But some lists of exempted activities reflect a national identity, or the efforts of lobbyists.
In some US states, golf, guns and marijuana have been ruled essential, raising eyebrows and, in the case of guns, a good deal of ire.
“Recent events clearly demonstrate that the process of designating ‘essential services’ is as much about culture as any legal-political reality about what is necessary to keep society functioning,” said Christopher McKnight Nichols, associate professor of history at Oregon State University, in the US.
Countries including India and US states are listing the information technology sector as essential.
The world’s dependency on the internet has become even more apparent as countless people confined to their homes communicate, stream movies and play games online to stave off cabin fever.
Several states where marijuana is legal, such as California and Washington, deemed pot shops and workers in the market’s supply chain essential.
“Cannabis is a safe and effective treatment that millions of Americans rely on to maintain productive daily lives while suffering from diseases and ailments,” Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said.
“It is the very definition of essential that these individuals can still access their medicine at this time.”
Connecticut governor Ned Lamont added gun shops to his list of essential businesses, generating shock and dismay among families of gun violence victims
Texas attorney general Ken Paxton issued a legal opinion saying emergency orders in his state cannot restrict gun sales.
“If you have a breakdown in society, well then our first line to defend ourselves is ourselves, so I think having a weapon is very important for your personal safety,” Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick told a radio interviewer.
In Arizona, governor Doug Ducey included golf courses on his list. Officials in Phoenix encouraged the city’s 1.7 million residents to “get outside, get exercise and practice responsible social distancing” in golf courses, parks and trails.
In New Hampshire, governor Chris Sununu said flower shops are among the essentials. His spokesman Ben Vihstadt said they provide essential services for funeral homes.
Pastry, wine and cheese
In Europe, the current epicentre of the pandemic, Italy has the most stringent rules, with only essential businesses such as food shops and pharmacies remaining open.
The manufacturing sector was ordered shut down on Thursday, though factories that make needed products like medical supplies will continue to operate after making conditions safer for employees.
In France, shops specialising in pastry, wine and cheese have been declared essential businesses.
In a nod to Israel’s vibrant religious life, people can gather for outdoor prayers, with a maximum of 10 worshippers standing two metres apart.
Aimee Huff, marketing professor at Oregon State University, specialising in consumer culture, said: “In times of uncertainty, institutions and practices that are central to the cultural identities can become really important touchstones, material markers of certainty, comfort, and mechanisms to persist.”
In China, authorities closed most businesses and public facilities beginning in late January but kept open hospitals, supermarkets and pharmacies.
Drivers delivering food, disinfectant and medical supplies to locked-down cities were hailed as heroes.