The coronavirus pandemic is defining for the globe what's "essential" and what things we really can't do without, even though we might not need them for survival.
Attempting to slow the spread of the virus, authorities in many countries are determining what shops and services can remain open. They're also restricting citizens from leaving their homes. Stay-at-home orders or guidance are affecting more than one-fifth of the world's population.
Essential in France: The daily trip to a boulangerie. Credit:Allamy
This has left many contemplating an existential question: What, really, is essential?
Whether it is in Asia, Europe, Africa or the United States, there's 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 ganja have been ruled essential, raising eyebrows and – in the case of guns – a good deal of ire.
Chilling out: Cannabis stories have been deemed essential in some US states.Credit:AP
In many places, booze is also on the list of essentials. Britain at first kept liquor stores off its list of businesses allowed to remain open, but after reports of supermarkets running out of beer, wine and spirits, the government quickly added them.
"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.
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 US states where marijuana is legal, such as California and Washington, deemed pot shops and workers in the market's supply chain essential. For some, the emphasis is on medicinal uses, not enabling cooped-up people to get stoned.
Gun shops have been deemed essential in several US states.Credit:AP
Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont added gun shops to his list of essential businesses, generating shock and dismay among families of gun violence victims.
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 products like medical supplies will continue to operate after making conditions safer for employees.
Britain, which was initially reluctant to shut down business, has issued orders to close nonessential operations. Restaurants and eateries must be shut, but Britons can still get fish and chips and other meals, as long as they're takeaway.
In France, shops specialising in pastry, wine and cheese have been declared essential businesses.
In a nod to Israel's vibrant religious life, people there can gather for outdoor prayers – with a maximum of 10 worshippers standing 2 metre apart. Demonstrations – also allowed – have occurred outside parliament and the Supreme Court, with participants maintaining social distance.
In China, authorities closed most businesses and public facilities beginning in late January but kept open hospitals, supermarkets and pharmacies. Truck drivers delivering food, disinfectant and medical supplies to locked-down cities were hailed as heroes. Now, the ruling Communist Party is relaxing restrictions to revive the economy after declaring victory over the outbreak.
In the United States, lobbyists have been trying to influence what gets on lists of essential services, so their clients' businesses can remain open. Lobbyists for manufacturers and the golf course industry were particularly active.
Despite their efforts, golf wasn't deemed essential in Connecticut. But Arizona Governor Doug Ducey included golf courses on his list.
Mayors of five other Arizona cities pushed back, telling Ducey that including golf courses and payday lenders was taking the definition of essential too far.
In California, construction executives and others lobbied state officials to get construction exempted from the stay-at-home mandate, the Sacramento Bee reported. State health officials responded by including all construction as essential.
Like Britain, some US states allowed liquor stores to remain open, including New Mexico, which routinely ranks first in alcohol-related deaths per capita.
In New Hampshire, Governor Chris Sununu said flower shops are among the essentials.
Asked why, spokesman Ben Vihstadt said they provide essential services for funeral homes.
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