So, What Exactly is an ‘Essential Item,’ Anyway?

In the beginning of April, when the country was just starting to fall into the seemingly interminable clusterfuck that is COVID-19, Amazon workers went on strike in protest of unsavory work conditions. The e-commerce behemoth has always been notorious for that problem, but a global pandemic exacerbates everything for obvious reasons.

In addressing the public regarding Amazon’s insistence that employees continue working in warehouses where the virus had known outbreaks, employee Mario Crippen leveled an earnest-yet-accidentally-hilarious complaint that they still have to ship dildos during a pandemic. While humorous, Crippen’s pleas are a depressing testament to capitalism keeping its foot on the neck of the proletariat, even during an international crisis. it’s a laugh-to-keep-from-crying moment of virality.

It also evokes a challenging question: what exactly constitutes an “essential items” during a global pandemic? When I posted Crippen’s video on Facebook, more than one woman suggested that a dildo just might be essential for some people. The notion of a sex toy as essential when hundreds of thousands of people are dying around the world seems absurd, but it’s worth exploring further.

Before doing so, I feel the need to acknowledge for some of you that I’m a fully-functioning adult who understands the literal definition of “essential,” lest I garner ire from the contingent of folks who haven’t left their home in more than two months for fear of opening their front door to a COVID kernel hopping in the side of their eyeball and transforming them into one of those zippy zombies from 28 Days Later.

There’s also a wealth of evidence from other countries suggesting that a more draconian approach toward shutting the United States down and quarantining everyone would’ve put us on the other side of this madness far more quickly. Perhaps our leaders should’ve taken the approach of the Sint Maarten prime minister and insisted we sit the fuck down and eat crackers.

But we’re Americans, imbued with a sense of privilege most of the rest of the world doesn’t deal with. It was always the case that we’d bend, stretch and beat the shit out of the definitions of “essentiality” and “quarantine.” It’s the reason why we’re provided a decent amount of latitude in terms of where we can go and what we can buy during the shelter-in-place quarantine.  

Insomnia Cookies is technically food, so I can still scratch a peanut butter cookie itch at 2 a.m. if I so felt inclined. If the plumbing in your crib busted it open like Megan Thee Stallion, you can still navigate the crowds of niggas who insist on showing up to Home Depot at 7 a.m. for some strange reason. You can still hit up Micro Center and other tech retailers because you can’t work from home and accidentally show colleagues your wang on a Zoom call without a functioning computer.

The conversation regarding essential items is predicated upon our collective focus on COVID-19’s mortality rate, which causes us to overlook the myriad other things about a global pandemic that can kill humans more slowly and more indirectly. There are the folks most vulnerable to the inevitable economic downturn who won’t make it out of this alive. There’s also the looming mental health crisis, which probably gets less attention than anything else. 

Turn on CNN and you’ll see deaths from the virus reduced to an omnipresent Running Man-esque “doom counter,” but what of the inevitable body count as a result of being stuck in the house, jobless and isolated, dealing with the existential dread of it all? My own therapist told me around the beginning of this shitshow that someone like Dr. Anthony Fauci would have to publicly address mental health in detail for it to maybe get some burn.  

Some mainstream publications finally started reporting on the crisis. The Atlantic – for my money, the best publication to follow the pandemic right now – acknowledged it. So did TIME. An Oakland, Ca. study released in early May said that “deaths of despair,” – ones that come as a result of suicide and substance abuse directly related to the pandemic – could take as many as 150,000 lives in the United States alone…a number not terribly smaller than the one the virus itself is projected to take.

The mental health crisis is, in part, attributable to the fact that the overloaded health care system has made it harder for people to obtain their existing prescriptions. But those of us without diagnoses still need to do what we can (within reason) to protect our mental health during a crisis with no defined finish line.

That, of course, is where shit gets subjective.  

I live alone, thrive off of physical touch and find Zoom and FaceTime calls about as useful a substitute for human interaction as an “Impossible” Ruth’s Chris ribeye. As such, I’ve found retail therapy to be an outlet to maintain my personal sanity.

I don’t “need” the stockpile of Dr. Teal’s Epsom salts and foaming bath that I get from Target, but I look forward to nothing more on a daily basis than soaking in a piping-hot bath. My physical health won’t decline if I don’t order all the books and graphic novels, but reading transports me away from the madness of the zeitgeist. So does being a rookie mixologist – tracking down ingredients and putting them together to create an alcoholic masterpiece is my adopted quarantine hobby.

I joke that if I were left alone in my apartment with only the “essentials” of food, shelter and clothing to carry me through the last two months of quarantine, they would’ve found me hanging from my ceiling fan a month ago. It’s hyperbole, sure, but I certainly would not be in a good place now.

Enter the slippery slope: one could posit that being nipples-deep in human soup off a beach in Florida somewhere is “essential” to mental wellness. But there are degrees of risk, and there’s a wide gulf between engaging in actions whose very nature places thousands of people in danger and those where risk is more mitigated, like shopping with a mask in Target while social distancing. Also, moving as I do while living alone is different than the college-aged assbutts hitting up a crowded beach before returning home to poison grandma.

There’s also the moral discussion regarding whether your Amazon order of a citrus juicer is worth endangering the health of the sorry bastards working to deliver it to you. I view it as, at once, feeding an economy headed straight for the toilet bowl as well as helping to keep that delivery person afloat with a paycheck during heretofore unseen levels of unemployment while the federal government has yet to get everyone that first bullshit-ass $1,200 stimulus check. (Winner: Capitalism!)  

To be clear, Amazon workers – as well as any other worker grinding to keep The Machine running during these unprecedented times – should be subject to fair and balanced labor practices. But if busting the occasional nut is essential to your mental health and you need a dildo to accomplish this, I’m not mad. Vibrate higher.












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