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There Are Two Types of People Now: Online Shoppers and the People Who Serve Them

New cases of coronavirus at Amazon and FreshDirect warehouses show the human toll of shopping online.

by Jason Koebler
Mar 19 2020, 2:30pm

Image: Bess Adler/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A society that already had deep divisions due to economic inequality has now had that division thrown into stark relief by the coronavirus pandemic. America is now divided into two factions: Those who can afford to offload their risk of becoming infected with a deadly pandemic onto others, and those who serve people who are holed up in their homes, delivering them food, video game consoles, toilet paper, diapers, and scrapbook material at great risk to themselves.

FreshDirect, a company that delivers groceries in New York, announced that one of its warehouse workers tested positive Wednesday. An Amazon warehouse worker in Queens became infected with coronavirus, workers learned Wednesday night. Remaining workers were told to come in for their 10:15 pm shift but refused.

In a video posted by Amazonians United NYC, an Amazon worker can be seen shouting at management: “You’ve all have done this already to us. We know, either you’re gaslighting us about our sick leave, or you’re gaslighting us about coronavirus for Amazon’s profits. We know what you’re doing. There’s an absolute disregard for the value of our lives. We do not buy it anymore.”

Amazon has said it will hire 100,000 new workers to keep up with demand in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which means that instead of going to stores, we are simply putting risk on those who have to take those jobs. Seamless is sending out alerts to customers saying that their delivery orders “can help save restaurants … Local restaurants need your delivery and pickup orders more than ever.”

As I scroll through social media, friends discuss how they are going to wait out the pandemic in their homes by getting into new hobbies, buying new video game consoles, discussing which cocktail ingredients Whole Foods had available for home delivery. They say they are going to continue to support their local restaurants by ordering delivery. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that this is not the right thing to do. We're not going to be able to shop or ecommerce our way out of this. At this moment, in these circumstances, it is unethical to buy literally anything more than you absolutely need to survive, and that doing so unnecessarily puts others at risk.

Unfortunately, our society's goal is the accumulation of capital, not the wellbeing of people. Some of us will die delivering video game consoles or pizzas not because it's a noble goal in and of itself, but because this is what the system we live in was designed to keep doing beyond all reason and sense.

It is not time to buy yoga pants, or an Instant Pot, or Easter candy, or solar-powered surveillance cameras, sales of which are all through the roof on Amazon. Part of “flattening the curve” means making do with less, being entertained with what you already have, and if you really need to, buying digital products instead of physical ones. It means realizing that our online orders do not magically appear at our doorsteps without human labor, without putting people at risk. It means realizing that the people working in Amazon warehouses and grocery stores and pharmacies right now are heroes. At the very least it means realizing that the people working in those jobs are people.

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A major problem in our broken society, though, is that capitalism does not care for these people. In the last week, we have seen some of America’s biggest companies slowly do the bare minimum—roll out guaranteed paid sick leave—but continue to insist on remaining open and asking their workers to work. The dystopic subtext, as we argued Tuesday, is that workers must continue to work until they are infected with the highly contagious, deadly pathogen that epidemiologists and public health officials are desperately trying to stop, and then hoping that these under- or uninsured people don't happen to die.

The effect coronavirus has had on economic activity in this country is so profound that buying a takeout cocktail from a bar, ordering delivery from a restaurant, suddenly getting into scrapbooking, or buying a gift card is not going to be enough to help businesses or workers weather the storm. Federal and state governments need to give no-strings-attached money to workers, now. Amazon needs to stop selling all but the absolute bare necessities. Seamless and GrubHub need to shut down. And we need to stop shopping online.

Humanity has not faced a crisis like this in over a century, and has never faced a global pandemic in a society that is built entirely around the single purpose of buying and delivering consumer goods in service of allowing individuals like Jeff Bezos to hoard unprecedented, unconscionable wealth. But one thing coronavirus has made painfully clear is that our society is not structured to deal with it.

Governments, scientists, and health care professionals are struggling to reduce the human suffering this crisis is causing, and there are few clear answers that don't have frightening, unpredictable side effects. What is the safest way to get a loaf of bread today? Is it better to go to the store where there's increased foot traffic and risk infecting yourself and others, or is it better to have that loaf of bread shipped from a centralized location, risking all involved in the process of delivery? Should we all be eating spam? We are all struggling with these questions.

I do not know what the answer is, as some people have no choice but to order basic necessities online because they are sick, elderly, immunocompromised, or at high risk. I don't have the answers, but I do know that in the midst of the worst public health crisis any living person has ever seen, we should not be buying frivolous bullshit on the internet and pretending that those actions don't have consequences.