What is “essential” around the world?

(Photo: The Straits Times)

By Holly Mottram – Contributor 

Almost 6 months after the world first heard the word “coronavirus”, over 100 countries are either adopting full or partial lockdown measures, but what are the exemptions to this, and why have different countries opted for them?

Looking at three different responses to what is deemed ‘essential’ across the globe, it is clear that these exemptions to the lockdown reflect the local culture and perceived necessity by the population.

Starting close to home with France; a country known worldwide for its fragrant cheeses, crispy breads and first-class wines. During the lockdown, these pillars of French culture have seen an exemption from the otherwise stringent measures of the government. Boulangeries, butchers, fromageries, chocolatiers and wine merchants have all been allowed to stay open, signalling a divergence from many other European countries.

It is part of daily life in France to buy fresh produce, with a fromagerie or a bakery on every street corner and in many villages on the outskirts of the big cities. Given the centrality of fresh bread or good wine in French culture, it may give an insight as to why these shops have been exempt from lockdown rules. These stores are hubs of activity and socialisation, locals purchase goods multiple times a week and they provide a livelihood for some French citizens. For many, seeing bakeries and other local shops close signals a deterioration of traditional French culture. With big supermarkets largely dominating the French shopping scene, local shops are under threat of closure, and with the impact of the coronavirus on local economies, it is possible that many would go under and be forced to close. Allowing these shops to stay open has saved them from economic collapse and has provided hope and good spirit to locals who see these stores as central to their everyday life and to their traditional French culture.

In a massive juxtaposition, we go across the pond to the USA, where the doors of fromageries and bakeries are firmly shut. Here, it is gun shops that have been allowed to remain open during the lockdown. Gun shops across the USA have been deemed essential by President Trump and his administration, with stores in all states operating as business as usual. Although it is not, business is actually booming, with queues snaking out the doors and down the streets!

For many Americans, the second amendment, that being the right to bear arms, is deeply ingrained in the culture, and presents a way of protecting yourself against not only those who wish to harm you, but also the government and police. Therefore, it would appear a natural response that when one feels threatened, you would turn to that which can protect you – weaponry. As the lockdown started, and coronavirus began to spread, more Americans than ever before were buying guns, with stores selling out daily. Sales were at a record high and continued to soar weeks after the lockdown measures were introduced. Particularly in the southern states such as Florida, Georgia and Texas, where there are actually more guns than people, the fear that coronavirus brought began a sort of frenzy around buying more weaponry in a bid to protect themselves.

Not only has the sale of weaponry increased, but the number of people wanting to buy a gun has followed suit. In March alone, almost 4 million background checks were completed to allow citizens to buy guns. This is characteristic of widespread fear throughout America, that those who previously have never owned a firearm are now willing to buy one to protect themselves from this virus.

From fearful Americans buying guns for protection, to laid back Australians who see alcohol as an essential product. In Australia, there are few shops that are permitted to remain open, one of which being liquor stores. Here, citizens can purchase alcohol and drink it in their houses, very similar to the UK. Alcohol, beer in particular, is at the very heart of the laid-back, beach centred Australian culture. Similar to the UK, alcohol is seen as a way to socialise with others, to relax and enjoy yourself, therefore it being considered an essential good is not too surprising.

Another type of shop allowed open in Australia, however, are toy shops. This has caused a fair amount of national controversy, as it is not an industry that could be considered crucial or essential. It has been somewhat justified by the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, saying that he had to buy his children jigsaw puzzles to help them cope with the lockdown. Therefore, large amounts of toy shops have either stayed open as usual or have changed their opening times to allow the public in for a few hours a day. This is an unusual industry to be deemed essential and its necessity has been questioned by many, however it does allow struggling parents or carers to find amusement for their children, something that cannot be said for parents in other countries.

To conclude, it is clear that culture and perceived necessity highly impact on what countries around the globe deem “essential”. From the desire for fresh bread and cheese in France to the need for weaponry in America, the diverse range of essential products and shops umbrella a wide range of industries, not only in these countries, but in Asia, South America and further afield.

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