Is online shopping during coronavirus safe?

Workers are risking their health to fulfill our online orders. And how do we know these packages are virus-free?

The lure of my idle browser window is overwhelming. It blinks and beckons me to buy all of the hand-poured candles,  luxury loungewear and leggings that cost more than the average person’s monthly utility bill.

But I don’t—not just because my freelance writer’s income is even less predictable than usual during this global pandemic, but because I wonder if it’s even safe. People are being asked to stay home, and yet COVID-19 outbreak or not, online orders necessitate factory workers, warehouse workers, postal workers and delivery people to be…at work. While some companies are closing up shop for the time being and still finding ways to pay their employees, Amazon alone just hired 100,000 more people to be out in the world working so they can  keep up with the spiked demand for online shopping. Is online shopping putting those workers at risk? Furthermore, am I also at risk of catching COVID-19 from potentially contaminated packages being delivered to my door?

Dr. David Buckeridge, an associate professor of epidemiology at McGill University, says it’s definitely less risky than physically going out to shop. “Online shopping is the way to go,” he says. “Better to have delivery people driving around on their own than to have people interacting (and possibly spreading the virus) at stores.” He says the virus can survive on some materials, but not for long at an infectious dose. “There is little risk of infection from a package,” he says, “especially compared to the risk of going to a store.”

One study found the virus can survive on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel surfaces. Handwashing, though, is an effective preventative measure. “If people wash their hands thoroughly after opening, they can still receive packages,” says Kate Mulligan, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

When I contacted Health Canada about the risks of online shopping, they referred me to materials on how the virus is spread: through droplets and close contact with others who may have contracted the virus, or through touching something with the virus on it and then touching your face. In order to keep in line with widely recommended social distancing efforts, Health Canada is asking that people who are self-isolating have their packages left outside. This tactic is the best bet for anyone who is able to follow it: Right now, a two-metre distance from others is recommended, and a drop-off scenario could ideally help maintain that.

As for products shipped from outside Canada, the department says: “Coronaviruses generally do not survive on surfaces after being contaminated. The risk of spread from products shipped over a period of days or weeks at room temperature is very low. There is no known risk of coronaviruses entering Canada on parcels or packages.”

Dr. Priyanka Mishra, a postdoctoral research associate at Simon Fraser University specializing in immunology, had a similar response. As long as people are staying home when they can, especially when they’re sick, and maintaining distance from one another as recommended by government and world health agencies, it should be safe for people to order things online without panicking. It’s unlikely, she says, that a package will arrive in your hands so virus-laden that it will infect you.

That’s not a green light to go ham and spend your savings on a shopping spree to cheer yourself up, though. There’s a difference between shopping for food and other necessary items versus ones that are solely wants at this time. Because everyone who can work from home has been advised to do so, Mulligan says it’s a better bet to shop only for the necessities right now. That puts less demand on factory workers having to fill orders. In terms of their safety, she says that risk is lessened if companies follow current public health protocol, setting up remote work situations for those who don’t need to be on site and finding ways for employees who do have to be physically present to keep their distance from one another. This advice is changing constantly, though, so employers and workers alike need to stay aware of updated recommendations.

Right now, Health Canada recommends workplaces institute policies including staggered work hours to avoid crowding on public transit, and making sure employees can work at least two metres away from one another. If you’re considering online shopping, looking into how the company is treating its workers is more important now than ever.

“[Supporting] small and mid-sized local businesses in your own community should be a priority,” Mulligan adds. “You could try making more of your own stuff, too.” Mulligan points out that if people are aware of their consumption habits during this forced time of reflection, we may be able to make long term positive social change as a result of coronavirus and COVID-19, such as providing universal basic income and shelter for all.

“My research has shown that helping others, getting outside in nature, exercising, talking with people and taking up a hobby are what can really make you feel healthy and well and have a sense of belonging in your community. Probably more than comfort shopping,” she says.

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