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  • Collegian staff

Opinion: Despite COVID-19, online shopping remains a necessity for many

Noah Dantes

Managing editor

There are several valid reasons why people have to shop online during this time: many items that are hard to find at physical stores right now can be purchased online, people who are struggling financially need to find the best deals possible wherever they may be and many people have pre-existing conditions that make it especially risky for them to go to a physical store. Online shopping during the pandemic, on any legal site, Amazon or otherwise, is ethical if the shopper is obtaining essential items. While it is easy to cast judgment on those who shop for nonessential items online, this is a time that calls on us to be as forgiving and understanding of others as possible—we are all impacted by COVID-19 in different ways.

While some may question the business practices of companies such as Amazon, this is not the time to be promoting boycotts or condemning customers of such online businesses. COVID-19 is an existential threat to many, and people who are struggling, be it financially, with their health or otherwise, have enough problems on their plate without the additions of boycotts and social judgment. The online retailer Amazon, for example, has a larger and more diverse stock of items than its retail counterparts, and offers many discounts and deals for its customers, according to Forbes. Without the services of online sellers such as Amazon, many shoppers would be left without essential supplies. Ethical debates about online shopping should be encouraged in a normal world, but in the face of a pandemic, it is important to carefully weigh what debates are necessary in the face of the crisis before engaging in them. 

The treatment of essential workers, including employees of online retail companies, is certainly one such necessary debate. A March 31 Washington Post reported, “In recent weeks, workers, unions and attorneys are seeing a dramatic rise in cases they say illustrate a wave of bad employer behavior, forcing workers into conditions they fear are unsafe, withholding protective equipment and retaliating against those who speak up or walk out.” These concerns are real and widespread, but that doesn’t change the fact that the services many companies, including online retailers, are providing right now are necessary. Even if we avoid boycotting exploitative or unsafe companies right now, we can continue to advocate for their workers by pushing for legislation ensuring workers’ protections, creating petitions and more. However, given these companies’ essential role, ethical debates concerning the existence or use of Amazon, Target and other large online retailers need to wait.

Because it can be ethical to shop online during this time, we should avoid any outright protest or shaming of online shopping choices without considering a person’s reason for their purchase. The issue then becomes a question of which purchases are ethical and which aren’t. However, the line separating what is essential and what is not can be hazy—needs vary from person to person. While some people may be quick to shame the online purchase of items commonly considered nonessential, such as video games, fashion products and more during this time, there are workers who rely on these products for income, such as YouTubers, influencers and more. Maybe one needs the newest headphones for work, or a new book for school. Generalizations concerning what is essential and what is not is harmful to many groups of people, beyond these specific examples. We should carefully look at each individual situation before making any judgment.

Beyond income, many use nonessential products to comfort and entertain themselves. Items used for comfort and entertainment are considered nonessential, but many of these items can feel essential. In the days of social distancing, many are facing anxiety and are feeling isolated. Such nonessential products can help people cope with the times, feel connected to others and increase their happiness. It is true that every package poses a unique risk to distribution, delivery and mail workers, and it is important for people to consider that fact before they make their online purchases, but any legal purchasing decision should be left to each individual to make free of harsh social judgment. There are certainly people who act without thought for others, such as those who have recently bought hundreds of rolls of toilet paper, but there are ways other than condemnation to get someone to change their ways. A kinder way to get someone to change their actions is to talk to them in an empathetic way. Instead of calling out and condemning selfish and thoughtless shoppers, we should instead show them kindness and ask them to consider their purchase's impact without judgment.

The risk for mail center and delivery workers, while real, is mitigated by the actions of mail centers across the country. Mail centers, including Willamette’s, are taking extraordinary measures to keep both their workers and those they serve safe. In an email, Willamette mail center employee Connie Ames said the mail center has reduced its hours and now only has one staff member on duty at a time, not including the work-study students working at the windows, when the mail center is not busy. While they have kept all their normal services open, including the Amazon lockers, all workers are wearing masks and gloves and are continually wiping down all of the work surfaces. They use disinfectant wipes, spray bottles with disinfectant, linens that are bagged and sent to be washed and sanitized by Facilities and keep a good supply of gloves and masks. They are no longer requiring signatures for package pick-ups.

Ames described the package pick-up process in the email: “We have placed blue tape 6+ feet from the two service windows and customers are asked to stay behind the line while we assist them with their mailing and receiving. We place packages on the counter of the service window, then step back and let the recipient come forward past the blue line to retrieve their items, or to pay for their stamps/mailing, etc.”

Willamette’s mail center is not the only one keeping its employees as safe as possible. Many post offices now have stickers on their floors asking customers to stay six feet apart and take many cleaning and safety measures, as described in an April 1 Vox article. The United States Postal Service (USPS) has also released a statement regarding COVID-19 on its website. In the statement, the USPS detailed a long list of safety and adaptive measures it is taking, many of which are similar to the measures the Willamette mail center has taken. 

People are feeling nervous to go into public areas: according to Digital Commerce, online orders went up 52 percent from March 22 to April 4. Given the intensive safety measures taken by mail centers around the country and the fact that visiting a store in-person involves sharing space and air with many other individuals, ordering packages online can be safer than visiting a physical store. 

This is not to understate the risks that distribution, delivery and mail workers are facing. The risk they face is very real, and their services should be appreciated and respected. They are fulfilling a truly essential service during this time, for many people do rely on online shopping to receive items necessary for their survival. Mail centers everywhere are facing unique challenges and pressures, and individuals should do their best to be understanding and considerate of this. However, there is no universal definition of what it means to be considerate in this situation: it is possible for someone not to order the newest computer, while someone else may need it for work. It is possible for someone not to order anything that requires a signature, while someone else may be forced to sign for a package carrying a prescription medicine, for example. Individuals should be able to decide what is essential to them without fearing harsh judgement. The people out there who aren’t considering the consequences of their actions could use some advice, but that advice doesn’t need to be judgmental or hostile. We are all trying to survive COVID-19, a situation unlike anything our society has ever faced before. Just as much as we need to be considerate and thoughtful of each other, we also need to be understanding, forgiving and supporting of each other during this trying time.

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