Is it ethical to order luxury items for delivery during a pandemic?

We ask an expert in moral philosophy whether now is the time to be upgrading our yoga mats and face creams

African American woman opening packages of shoes on sofa. Getty Images
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These are extraordinary times.

As the UAE government amps up measures to keep us at home and safe amid the coronavirus outbreak, our freedom of movement may have been compromised, but our ability to shop has not.

Retailers and restaurants all over the country are still delivering food and goods to our homes.

This, however, brings with it a whole new set of ethical issues. For example, are we putting drivers under unnecessary risk when we order something non-essential, such as a new yoga mat or luxury face cream?

On the other hand, do we as consumers have a moral and social responsibility to keep businesses, particularly small ones, afloat right now?

It’s a moral conundrum – and one we’ve tried to clarify with the experts.

Is there a risk to our health?

Firstly, it’s important to know that, according to the US Food and Drug Administration, there is currently no reason to believe Covid-19 has been spread via food or food packaging.

A yet-to-be-published study conducted by scientists from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in America, National Institutes of Health and other US institutions suggests the virus can live for two to three days on plastic and stainless steel surfaces, family medicine physician Neha Vyas from American hospital Cleveland Clinic confirms.

While the study found the virus can live for up to a day on cardboard, the CDC states that the chances are low that it will spread from packaging shipped over a period of days at ambient temperatures, Vyas adds.

“It seems relatively clear … that receiving deliveries is low risk,” says Rachel Fraser, an associate professor of philosophy at Exeter College in Oxford, UK.

“The risk to delivery drivers, particularly those who work in pairs, and their families is presumably much higher. Those who seem most at risk are the most invisible: the warehouse workers. Amazon warehouse workers in New York, for example, have gone on strike over the lack of protective gear.

"So it matters a lot whether you are ordering from a company that has put in place robust social distancing for its warehouse employees and drivers, or from a company which hasn’t.”

A number of e-tailers that deliver within the UAE have outlined their new health and safety procedures. Fashion store Ounass, for example, issued a statement from its chief executive, Khalid Al Tayer, outlining its “extensive precautions to put you first”. All orders are dispatched directly from Dubai, cleaned on arrival and handled only with protective gloves, he declared.

“All our vans are fully cleaned inside and out in an intensive daily process that ensures the utmost hygiene. Drivers are equipped with disinfectants and face masks, and wear protective gloves.”

Luxury retailer, which is based in London but delivers across the world, including to the UAE, also issued a statement assuring customers that it is adhering to health and hygiene standards in line with guidance from the World Health Organisation.

“We are maintaining the highest standards of hygiene at all of our physical locations and ensuring our people only report for work if they are fit and healthy,” the statement reads, adding that vehicles are disinfected daily and drivers wash their hands and use sanitiser regularly.

The retailer is operating normal delivery service everywhere, except in Wuhan, China and Piacenza, Italy.

The National also reached out to and to clarify their own health and safety procedures, but neither had responded at the time of writing.

How will businesses survive without us?

Meanwhile, food delivery apps such as Deliveroo, Zomato and UberEats are offering deliveries with limited contact between drivers and customers, as they can leave food outside your door. But despite the fact that, unlike many other businesses, these companies are still able to operate in these unprecedented times, the drivers may still be suffering.

For example, Nepalese driver Sundeep, who asked for his last name and company not to be used, told The National that "coronavirus is hell for us". He explained he earns Dh9.50 per delivery and has no base salary, averaging Dh3,000 in a normal month, but at this time "there's no money for us to save".

UAE's delivery drivers on front line in fight against coronavirus

UAE's delivery drivers on front line in fight against coronavirus

As all services have switched to using cards instead of cash in order to limit human interaction, tips have also dried up, which can be a lifeline for many.

So, as consumers, what is our role in all this?

“It’s clearly not desirable that the consumer economy completely grind to a halt, but, ideally, workers should not be facing the choice of starving or risking becoming unwell,” Fraser adds. “Consumers should not be forced with the choice of ordering yoga mats or putting yoga mat retailers out of business.

“The pandemic represents a huge exogenous shock to the economic system, and competent governments ought to be aiding those whose livelihoods depend on its normal functioning.”

One person's luxury item might be key to another's mental health

Sadly, one retailer in Dubai that has already had to close its virtual doors is The Modist. After just three years of trading, the luxury e-commerce platform, one of the pioneers of the modest fashion movement, announced on Thursday, April 2 that it would be shutting down with immediate effect. “We regret to inform you that the global crisis that has hit the world has left our young business vulnerable with no option but to cease operating,” a statement read.

Should we be judging ourselves and others?

While we’re all mandated to stay at home, and many individuals are also suffering financially due to pay cuts and loss of jobs, it might seem frivolous to buy clothes, candles or cakes at a time like this, but some may find solace in the treat.

“I think it’s important that we avoid, as far as possible, moralistic judgements of others’ choices,” says Fraser. “One person’s luxury item might be key to another’s mental health.”

So, rather than worrying about whether or not we should be buying “unnecessary” items in a pandemic, we should be taking collective action, Fraser adds.

“The best thing individuals can do is put pressure on their governments to allocate resources compassionately rather than agonise over their own, or over others’, consumer choices.”

On Sunday, the UAE announced it had increased its economic stimulus package to Dh256 billion ($70bn) to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the country's businesses and residents.

We still can remain aware that by undertaking too many orders we may clog up the infrastructure for those in need, particularly when it comes to “essentials”, such as groceries and medical supplies.

“The government advice in the UK is that we should be using delivery services wherever necessary, and not only in cases where one is ill or disabled,” Fraser continues. “The main problem with this advice is that deliveries are a scarce resource: if everyone tries to get their food delivered, there are fewer slots available for the most vulnerable.”

This is a classic collective action problem, she says, but there is “relatively little that individuals can do to ameliorate it”.

“This is a problem that requires top-down rather than bottom-up intervention.” In the UK, for example, one way a number of supermarkets are getting around this issue is by reserving slots specifically for vulnerable and elderly customers.

This is a problem that requires top-down rather than bottom-up intervention

What it boils down to is this: Covid-19 is a new virus and so thorough research still needs to be done on how long it can survive on various surfaces, and how it is passed on.

From a health perspective, everyone should continue to strictly follow official guidelines regarding washing our hands and clothes regularly, as well as adhering to basic food safety guidelines and stay home as much as possible.

But from a moral perspective, the jury is still out on whether or not to shop online. Basically, it's case-by-case and depends on the conditions workers face.

What is imperative is that you do what feels right for you and your community.