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 places 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.
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 U.S. states, golf, guns and ganja have been ruled essential, raising eyebrows and — in the case of guns — a good deal of ire.
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.