Virus-Proofing and the Economy
Three days ago I received a postcard from my local auto repair garage. After spraying it with Lysol and leaving it on a table for three days, I looked at what they had to say.
My garage is offering “Concierge Vehicle Services.” This means that they will pick up my car at my home, take it to the shop, fix it, then “sanitize” my car, and finally they will leave it in my driveway. This is clever marketing in dire times. One of my daughter’s friends works in an auto body shop. Business has dried up, since no one is supposed to drive, and no one wants to sit in their waiting room, and no one wants to be driven home by a worker who may have been exposed to dozens of other people in the course of the day.
My local food co-op has another idea. I can pre-order and prepay online. Then I drive to their curbside, open my trunk, and they will come out and place my groceries in the car. I don’t have to go into the store, and I don’t come within six feet of another person. True, my groceries have been handled, so I need to figure out how to deal with all the stuff I have brought home. The Harvard School of Public Health has guidance on that, or you can see my brief article Home Delivery While Home Alone.
A family-owned deli in Clearwater, Florida, places a table outside the store. On the table are a hand-pump sanitizer and disposable gloves. A sign says: “Welcome. We are only allowing five customers at a time in the store. Please use the hand sanitizer and put gloves on BEFORE entering the store. Curbside service is available.” The owner says her staff keep social distance from each other and that they are “bleaching everything down” every 30 minutes. By this, she means counters, door handles, and other surfaces. Customers don’t have to sign their credit card slips, which she calls “touchless” transactions. In an interview she adds that her 80 year-old father is not allowed to work in the store, and neither is her mother — for their own protection. With supermarkets stripped of many goods, her deli seems well-stocked. “We had a lady come in and tear up when she saw ground beef, because she says she hasn’t seen it for so long.”
This deli is making a good effort, though there are some gaps. The staff aren’t wearing masks or gloves, and neither are the customers. When they take your credit card and hand it back, it isn’t necessarily virus-free. Neither is the cardboard packaging on your cereal, nor the plastic wrapper on your bread. The person who does curbside delivery to your trunk is shown wearing gloves. Does he dispose of them each time he handles an order?
I would give the Clearwater deli an A for effort. I think that every deli, and every market, and every “take out” food joint should try to do the same — and more.
My son works as a cashier at a supermarket in Oregon. The store has drawn lines on the floor in front of the register to encourage customers to stand six feet apart when in line. They have also installed a Plexiglas shield at his register. This is similar to the glass “sneeze boards” that restaurants put above their salad bars. Some supermarkets in my Southeast Pennsylvania locale (Giant, Acme, and others) have instituted “senior shopping” periods where only those over 60 years of age can shop. I am not sure how this protects the customers or the staff, other than keeping self-isolating seniors away from nothing-can-harm-me young customers who are in their 20s and might have been clubbing or beach-partying a week ago.
Some years ago, while working in international development, I first heard the medical term “cold chain.” Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:
A cold chain is a temperature-controlled supply chain. An unbroken cold chain is an uninterrupted series of refrigerated production, storage and distribution activities, along with associated equipment and logistics, which maintain a desired low-temperature range.
An example would be keeping a vital medicine cold all the way from its manufacture, through transport, through offloading, through jeep ride to a refugee camp 12 hours away by dirt road. If the medicine isn’t kept cold as it passes through many hands, it becomes ineffective.
So, in this period of coronavirus pandemic, how would you create a “cleanchain?” By that, I mean taking a product from the plant to my front door — and keeping it contamination-free the whole time? This is the challenge that all customer-serving businesses must consider, whether it is called “virus free” or something else.
I don’t think that grocery store cashiers, UPS drivers, Walgreen clerks and pizza-deliverers would ever have thought of themselves as public health heroes — until now. This pandemic has shown us just how much we depend upon hourly-wage workers to keep us alive. Not to mention farmers, truck drivers, breadmakers, power-plant operators and anyone who works anywhere in the health care industry. While the rest of us are supposedly “sheltering in place,” these people are going to work every day.
Every crisis brings opportunity for businesses that are either lucky or nimble. Companies like Zoom, which provides online “Meeting” software are experiencing rapid growth. Walmart’s stock is riding high, and it wants to hire an additional 150,000 workers. Purell got lucky, Lysol got lucky. A shop-for-you startup called Instacart got lucky. They have 200,000 “gig” workers and want to hire 300,000 more.
That’s nice for the enterprise, but what about the workers? Some grocery store workers are working 70-hour weeks. Most of them are exposed to hundreds of customers, any of whom could be carrying the virus. Yet the large chains are not providing them with masks and gloves. Walmart, according to the New York Times, says they do not provide these items because the CDC does not “explicitly recommend them for workers outside the medical profession.” The same goes for Stop & Shop, whose spokesperson told the Times that there is a more critical need for masks in hospitals and health care facilities, “and they send the wrong message to already jittery shoppers that the worker is ill.” Workers who want to make and wear their own masks are being discouraged from doing so. At Instacart, some workers have already started a strike, because they have low to no health benefits and are not being provided with protective gear. One of the strike organizers, Vanessa Bain, told The Washington Post “It’s so scary to be in a grocery store right now, and so scary to be around swarm and mobs of people.”
What about the workers who deliver to your door? The headline in a recent New York Times article says it all: “‘Terrified’ Package Delivery Employees are Going to Work Sick. Truckers and warehouse workers at FEDEX and UPS feel they have no choice but to keep showing up, even with corona-virus like symptoms.”
To add one more piece to the puzzle, consider what an anonymous Amazon warehouse worker wrote in Medium:
If I could stay home, I would, but I need this job. We have work gloves and hand sanitizer but nothing else to protect us from the coronavirus. Everything has been touched by 1,000 hands: Hands at the manufacturer, the distributor, the docks, the trucks; hands making up the pallets. Then I pick up each item and put it on my pod, and that pod goes to other sets of hands: the pickers, the packers, the shippers. We move fast, and we sweat when we work. The warehouse has no air circulation. One sneeze particle, and it’s just caught inside. What if my whole department, my whole warehouse, gets sick?
Thus it comes as no surprise that some Amazon workers at the “JFK8” plant in New York are planning to go on strike. One of their fellow workers just tested positive. Where there is one, there are many. The workers want the management to shut down the plant for a thorough cleaning. Altogether, 4,500 people work there. And workers at 13 other Amazon facilities have tested positive, according to CNBC.
How are our vital workers faring at this point? Well, “their” government is going to give them a gift of $1,200. And many will get enhanced unemployment checks for a few months, so long as “their” state governments kick into gear to handle the processing. And some of “their” companies are giving them $300 bonuses for continuing to show up for work. Our politicians and big business leaders hope that such measures will keep both the employed and the unemployed workers mollified and in place until everything gets back to normal. But, when this crisis is over, what will “Normal” look like?
So, what the hell, let’s end this piece by giving a tip of the hat to Karl Marx. His basic point was that “the workers” keep everything going. Our Economy would fall apart without them. Yet they are underpaid, under-protected, and under-recognized. The Owners (managers and stockholders) reap profits and give themselves stock bonuses and dividends. This interconnected elite has created and tries to maintain the commercial and political system that keeps them wealthy and in power. It seems only reasonable to call them the Ruling Class — since they make the rules.
Which leads one to ask: What if the workers and former workers made the rules? The coronavirus has laid the system bare. Its essential reliance on its workers is shockingly obvious. So, should the workers of the world — also known as the vast majority of the adult population — ignore the men behind the curtain? Or, as their erstwhile friend Karl Marx would have argued, should they unite? This is a good time to be asking this question, since the system is crashing around us. Do we “reboot” (attempt to revive the old system) or do we develop a new “operating system?” The time to talk about this is Now.