Causing confusion — what is essential and what isn’t

A shopper wearing a surgical mask and latex gloves inspects a dozen eggs at a Trader Joes on April 3, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
A shopper wearing a surgical mask and latex gloves inspects a dozen eggs at a Trader Joes on April 3, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Image: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

One person’s essential is another’s non-essential.

But now in this extraordinary lockdown time, the government has had to step in to decide what’s what for us.

They’ve done so very clearly in some cases, such as alcohol. You will not buy alcohol, from anywhere, at any time; you may not even travel with it in your boot. Goddit?

Many would argue that being forced to stay cooped up in your home with your family for weeks on end nudges alcohol quite compellingly into the essential category. But no-one’s confused about where the government stands on that.

In other cases, the official information is unfortunately open to interpretation.

Take “personal toiletries”. At a ministerial briefing a week ago, personal toiletries were added to the list of essential goods.

The media statement put out under the name of trade and industry minister Ebrahim Patel states “personal toiletries, including haircare, body and face wash, roll-ons, deodorants, toothpaste”.

The word “including” is key, but inevitably, our retailers’ interpretation of what counts as essential personal toiletries and what does not varies widely.

Pippa Mavian tweeted: “At Dis-Chem I could not buy a face mask [a beauty one] for my daughter, as they were cordoned off. But I was able to buy one at Clicks?”

Dis-Chem is not selling shaving blades, said “Batman”, but Takealot is.

Marianne Valentine said that at her local branch of Clicks, “hair dye is up for sale, but the lipstick and acne gel are cordoned off and not for sale”.

“Fascinating to see what you’re allowed in this Clicks,” tweeted author Darrel Bristow-Bovey. “Women’s razors? No. Men’s razors? Yes. Lipstick? No. Nosehair trimmers? Yes! Hairbrushes? No way! Hair dye? Of course! 

“This is what happens when a society values laws more than the principles behind them.”

That brings to mind the bizarre scene which played out at a Pick n Pay in Pretoria on Friday. 

Single mom Carmen Abdoll was told by a store manager that she could not enter the store with her three-year-old child. “What are single parents with small kids supposed to do to get food?” she asked me. “Must I leave my three-year-old at home alone? 

“Or in the car and crack a window?

“The manager told me to leave him outside. Which I won’t do. I can’t find this in the regulations.”

Pick n Pay was very quick to jump in and apologise to Abdoll on Twitter, saying: “We view this incident in a serious light and do not condone such behaviour.”

Clearly we shouldn’t be doing our shopping for essentials with our children in tow if we can help it, but for Abdoll and other single parents of young children, it should be clear to any reasonable person that it is essential that they don’t leave them home alone.

What constitutes an essential service has also led to mass confusion.

“Simon” emailed to ask me: “During shutdown I have had one cell phone ‘die’ on me and a back up having battery problems, but my cell phone repair guy has had to close shop because he was deemed not to be an essential service? 

Nope, it seems not, Simon.

Grocery stores, including smaller food shops, fresh produce shops, butchers and convenience stores at services stations, yes.

Ditto spaza shops, pet stores [selling food], health shops and pharmacies.

Not so cellphone shops in general; hence Simon’s “cellphone repair guy” can’t help him now. But both MTN and Vodacom have kept some of their stores open for trading during lockdown — 20% in MTN’s case — to do urgent repairs, sim swaps and offer technical support for modem and phone set-ups.

And their call centres will remain open.

How about phoning people to sell them new cellphone contracts — what the industry likes to call “upgrades”. Is that considered an essential service?

No, only inbound call centres will remain open, to handle calls and texts from customers.

“Any other outgoing activity during the lockdown period will be handled by agents operating from home,” Vodacom told me.

So if you get a “you qualify for an upgrade” call during lockdown, you won’t hear that familiar busy call centre noise in the background; you may just hear children, dogs or TV sounds instead.

Funny old life. A week ago, at the start of lockdown, the demand for grocery deliveries predictably went through the roof. Sadly, the supermarkets had the will and the new regulations on their side but nowhere near the required capacity.

Takealot had the capacity but a website full of non-essential items they couldn’t sell, and it took them many days to re-configure their site to sell only essentials.

Netflorist, meanwhile, was sitting pretty. It had the delivery capacity and, being an online gifting retailer, the ability to instantly stop people being able to order flowers, booze and luxury hampers simply by future-dating the delivery date of those non-essentials to post-lockdown.

Then they added fruit and vegetables [albeit relatively expensive ones] and shelf-stable groceries to their offerings. 

And the first orders were delivered with a free bunch of non-essential flowers which Netflorist could no longer sell.

As we enter week two of this new life, I think we can all agree that kindness, tolerance, common sense and empathy are very firmly on the essential list. 

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