Deliveries are the only thing I look forward to now
Some people have spent quarantine perfecting new recipes and some have spent it attending virtual meditations or sewing masks. Personally, I've spent most of my time in self-isolation adding things to various internet shopping carts, then deleting them half a day later.
I've nearly bought yoga pants, a pink tea kettle I couldn't really afford, a windbreaker (why? It's not like I go outside), and a special edition whiskey decanter shaped like a baseball that could double as a weapon in the event of a home burglary. Not because I actually needed any of those things, but because receiving packages has become one of our only connections to the outside world. It's both a way of measuring time — 6-10 "business days" makes me laugh, remember business days? — and gives you something to look forward to when there is very little certainty ahead of us about anything. But deliveries are also fraught with ethical dilemmas, a sobering reminder of the class of workers who risk their lives to bring us 16-year-old sourdough starter from San Francisco and Nintendo Switches to quench Animal Crossing FOMO.
Even as the economy has tanked, some e-commerce has surged, particularly as Americans have shifted "from stockpiling to entertainment," CNBC reports. "There was a whopping 777 percent increase in book purchases, followed by 182 percent growth in the toys and games category, and 131 percent growth among sports and outdoors items, which includes gym equipment," from the first half of March to the first half of April. According to a separate study by Emarsys/GoodData, the number of online orders for web-only online retailers was up 52 percent year over year in the United States and Canada. That's ... a lot of packages.
Waiting for deliveries gives us a new kind of structure to our lives, when routines have all but fallen apart otherwise. With millions of people newly unemployed or furloughed, and millions of others working from home, an expected delivery date can be the only firm reminder of what day of the week it is (I've had the actual thought, "my package will be here on Friday, and that's tomorrow, which means today is Thursday"). Because the gratification isn't immediate, we experience a version of waiting that we can actually somewhat control, or at least voluntarily opt into. With many mid-to-long term plans now canceled or up in the air, each package is a little certainty to look forward to.
In this sense, retail therapy is an extremely human — or at least extremely American — way of coping with the precariousness of our situation. Shopping "is proven to make people happier, as well as fight sadness and stress, especially in times of uncertainty," Refinery 29 reports, noting that the false sense of security it might give us during the pandemic "isn't necessarily a bad thing." For people living alone especially, getting a package in the mail might be the only connection to the outside world they have in a given week, aside from maybe Zoom calls or trips to the grocery store, although even food can now be packaged in a box and appear at your door a few hours later.
"Appear," though, isn't precisely accurate, or at least doesn't tell the whole story. If we didn't think how products got to us before the pandemic, we sure ought to now. All consumption, even during "normal times," is fraught with ethical pitfalls, it's just that the pandemic has exacerbated the exploitation of the underlying system is in a way that's now much harder to ignore. "Many workers in the logistics and delivery industry get at most a handful of paid sick days a year," reported The New York Times last month. "That can push them to work through coughs and fevers. Now, with so many people and businesses relying on a functioning delivery system, the pressure to go in has only intensified, workers said." Slate goes as far as to call these employees the new "first responders" because of their work on the front lines of the pandemic.
Tragically, a number of UPS workers have already died of COVID-19 and while their deliveries may have involved getting essential products and medicines into the hands of the elderly or those with accessibility issues, the majority of the goods were presumably ordered by who didn't really need another pair of sweatpants, but kind of wanted some anyway (or at least craved the endorphin release that accompanies finding a package at the front door). In a recent article, Vice argued, "There are two types of people now: online shoppers and the people who serve them," adding "we should not be buying frivolous bulls--t on the internet and pretending that those actions don't have consequences." Food delivery workers are a whole other can of worms.
What's important, at the very least, is to minimize the strain we're putting on warehouse workers and on delivery people of all stripes, whenever we can. Quartz writes that one of the priorities people should have during a pandemic is also to "keep the economy as healthy as we can," while limiting the toll that requires of others. This isn't an easy thing to balance at all. "We often wonder: 'Did I do the right thing? Did I make the right purchase? Did I just make somebody more miserable by making this decision?'" Jim Thomas, the lead author of the American Public Health Association's code of ethics, explained to Quartz. "And we can't know. We just never know that. Life is so complicated and the paths are so complex. But we can try, and it's the trying that matters."
One solution might be ordering local whenever possible (and especially not crossing the picket lines of striking delivery workers at companies like Amazon). Many small businesses are hurting and receiving pitiful support from the government. In my own neighborhood lots of store owners have taken to doing the deliveries themselves in order to stay open; I've also opted for contactless pickups to limit the number of people involved in getting me, say, my direct trade coffee beans.
That does mean there are fewer packages for me to measure out my life with. Being satisfied with less is obviously a good thing, as is doing everything we can as consumers to protect and support at-risk workers in our communities. But deliveries are also one of the best reminders of the way our lives are interconnected, and dependent, on others — for worse, yes, but also for better. So go ahead, order that pink tea kettle on Etsy, and maybe even interact with a human — from a safe distance, in a mask! — in the process. After all, isn't that what we're really missing right now?
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