Who is “essential,” and what does that mean? I’ve been thinking about that lately.
I get a lot of email these days; I’m sure we all do. It’s basically of three varieties: hey, we’re still open, please get take-out; hey, we’re closed, please buy a gift card; and, hey, COVID19 is going to affect our customer service but don’t expect us to cut you any slack on the due date for whatever you owe us.
In the real world, businesses that are not deemed essential are hurting. Gyms, big box and boutique, are closed. Fitness studios that are not part of larger corporations have had to get creative in offering streaming classes to members, deals on memberships, and other perks—and with each passing day, the email appeals for help from clientele sound a little more desperate.
Salons are also hurting, and are in some cases offering similarly innovative options. I got an email offering take-away hair color kits for gray coverage, which was a neat idea that is becoming more and more essential by the day. I don’t think my basic Zoom subscription includes a youth filter (yet).
Compared with the crisis facing service businesses and their employees that don’t make the “essential” cut (note, pool cleaners did), the travails of the privileged class who can work from home are trivial. Compared with the long hours, danger, and stress of health care workers, getting annoyed about not having freshly roasted coffee seems offensive.
But there is a paradox there. The Twitter commentariat, media, academics, influencers, and policy-makers are the sorts of people who can work from home, and their concerns are focused on the health dimension of this crisis. They are the people posting on social media about the challenges of working from home, from unplanned homeschooling to clips of Zoom calls that reveal partially clad spouses in the background to photos of empty paper product aisles, the narrative is that this is very inconvenient in a humorous way, but if all I have to do is stay home, I’m willing to make that sacrifice.
But it’s more than just inconvenient for the people who provide us with the “luxuries” that we are willing to give up temporarily in the name of sacrifice. The hairdressers who make us look better than we should, the mom-and-pop shops that provide us with freshly roasted coffee beans, and the fitness instructors who whip us into shape are more than just inconvenienced. Their dreams, plans, and ability to provide for their families are in jeopardy.
It is strangely revealing how tone-deaf the chatting classes are when talking about trade-offs in this moment. The amount of outrage that can be provoked at the suggestion that public health concerns are not without actual costs is part of our age’s decadent sentiment that all good things must be free because they are good.
As this crisis is revealing, we need each other. We depend on one another for services of all sorts, and judging which ones are essential versus which ones are not is always an arbitrary exercise. We depend on each other for companionship, and we count on bars and restaurants to give us a space for that. Businesses are a big part of what makes a neighborhood “cool” or “livable” or “walkable.” It’s a lack of imagination on the part of the inconvenienced class that makes us think that giving up pedicures for a few weeks is all part of some small but necessary sacrifice. It’s not small for the nail salon. The owners and employees may think closing is vital for health reasons, but for them, it would be a big but necessary sacrifice.
Let’s not caricature businesses concerned about the economic impact of this moment as merely caring more about the stock market than human lives. The impact of this crisis will be felt by bartenders and Uber drivers who do not have 401Ks. Those of us in the work-from-home class should do all we can within our local ShIP mandates to help the businesses and institutions that make our lives so easy and comfortable. We should remember that there is a whole sector of our society who are too busy keeping their livelihoods afloat to engage in trivial discourse on social media. Let’s remember them even as we commit to protecting public health.
Erin Valdez is a policy analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation.