Should We Be Kind to the Rich?

Should We Be Kind to the Rich?

A reader also asks about the ethics of ordering groceries online during the pandemic.

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Dear Liza,

There’s a big stink here in Maine over people coming up from the New York City area to ride out the coronavirus lockdown. Maine is in many ways a Third World country and, especially outside Southern Maine, still largely reliant on tourism and resource extraction. Resentment of rich folks from away is baked into our DNA. It’s pretty ugly, and I know it’s happening elsewhere, too.

A friend of mine told me approvingly about a neighbor who chewed out some people when she found out they had come up from New York City to flee the Covid-19 crisis. She demanded to know whether they’d brought their own supplies so they wouldn’t go into local stores. And others who arrived to shelter in their summer homes have had their cars vandalized.

This all makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Our area is heavily dependent on summer folk, so we’ve always had a relationship with them, one complicated by their class privilege. We, of course, resent them for treating us as lesser, but it seems cruel to beat them up for seeking safety. We also have a large refugee population, and the anger directed at both groups feels uncomfortably similar.

Solidarity with people with second (or third) homes feels funny but also like the humane response. What do you think?

—Mainelander

Dear Mainelander,

It’s been enraging to see the well-off leave New York City with so little regard for the impact on their chosen destinations. There have been media reports of rich urbanites carrying the virus to the Hamptons, the Jersey Shore, and Florida. Also, since they can afford to hoard, the wealthy have been buying up much of the food in local stores. Health officials warn that such migrations risk overburdening small, understaffed hospitals ill-equipped for the outbreak. It’s a sharp illustration of how an entitled class places its health and well-being above others’.

Your neighbors are right to resent this behavior. The rich should not be allowed to disregard the survival needs of locals. Some policy-makers agree. The governor of New Jersey asked people with second homes not to travel to them during the pandemic. Some Long Island officials did likewise. In early April your governor, Janet Mills, ordered all new arrivals to self-quarantine for 14 days and said others should not come at all if they’re showing symptoms of Covid-19 or are from virus hot spots like New York City. She has shuttered hotels and short-term rentals to further discourage visitors. Violators could face fines and jail time. Rhode Island has taken even more aggressive measures: In late March, Governor Gina Raimondo issued an executive order that had the state police stopping cars with New York license plates and sending officers door-to-door to order New Yorkers into self-quarantine. She said of her order, “This is not a suggestion.” (Under criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, she doubled down, expanding her order to include all out-of-state visitors, not just New Yorkers.)

Still, Mainelander, your attitude is decent and humane and your concerns well founded. To some readers, the parallel you’re drawing between refugees and well-heeled urbanites might seem like a stretch. But considering the history of populisms that target people “from away,” it is not. Anti-Semitism in Europe has often been mixed with class resentment against bankers. In the 1970s, Idi Amin pursued a racist policy of exclusion against South Asians in Uganda, grounded partly in the popular resentment of South Asian immigrants who had prospered and become a privileged class. While the class struggle of workers against capitalists is always necessary—as is political pressure for the redistribution of wealth—the populist resentment of those seen as “not from here” can take an ugly turn.

Dear Liza,
I live in Westchester County in New York, one of the first areas hit hard by the coronavirus. My husband and I don’t go out except to take walks, without getting near people. I am wary of going to grocery stores, since the virus can linger in the air and people can have it without symptoms. But the only delivery service near me that has any slots available is Instacart. I know it sends people to stores to buy the items, so that means we would be paying to put its workers at risk. That might be morally justified because we are over 60, my husband has diabetes, and the workers might be younger. But then again, the person dispatched to pick up my groceries might expose an older person. Another option is Amazon. (We don’t have Amazon Fresh, but there is some food available on the main site.) Since the workers would be packing it in a warehouse, I believe they would be less at risk than in a store. Do you think this is the most moral option?

—At Risk

Dear At Risk,

Amazon’s warehouse workers do face serious danger during this pandemic. Many have contracted Covid-19 because of the company’s negligence on matters like sick leave. Like Instacart employees, Amazon workers all over the country have been going on strike and protesting these conditions. Though some of these workers are young, I wouldn’t assume the coronavirus is not a threat to them; at least one has died.

Boycotts are usually intended to economically pressure companies to change their behavior. It’s almost impossible to imagine that consumers could bring any pain to Amazon, a company with monopolies in so many sectors. But you’re right to want to avoid putting workers at risk through your order.

In some places, it’s easier to get groceries delivered now than at the beginning of the lockdown. You may be able to use Peapod, Stop & Shop’s online service. Some stores provide special shopping times for those who most need protection from the virus. For example, Costco has set aside 8 to 9 am on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays for shoppers over 60. You can also try calling local grocery stores to ask if they offer curbside pickup, as many now do.

Another option is mutual aid: Many neighborhood groups have organized volunteers to deliver groceries to older and more vulnerable people who shouldn’t be going to the store.

Have a question? Ask Liza here.

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