It’s Not Just Supply Chains We Need to Fix

By Rich Handley

Eventually, businesses will again start receiving the goods they're having trouble stocking, but human compassion seems to be in short supply.

This past week, my family and I ordered food from a Chinese restaurant. Unlike a disturbing number of Americans who have resisted quarantining themselves as part of the nationwide effort to stem the coronavirus's spread, we've been taking the pandemic seriously. As such, we've barely been leaving home except to buy groceries, go for walks outside alone, or occasionally pick up takeout.

The restaurant is one we'd never been to before. Not surprisingly, given the current crisis, it was empty other than for the couple who own it. When I walked in, the husband greeted me happily, and in the course of our brief conversation, he must have called me "my friend" at least ten times. I could tell he was genuinely grateful to have a customer, and as he packed our order, he said, "I will give you some extra food." Sure enough, he not only threw in free soup and egg rolls, but also added a handwritten sticky note that said "EXTRA FOOD FREE!", which amused my family as we later sat down to eat. He was a friendly and sincere individual, and had the quarantine not been in effect, I'd have stuck around to chat a bit more. But what he said to me left me feeling sad as I drove home.

Apparently, this man and his wife have been in that same spot for more than twenty years, during which they've successfully established themselves as a popular takeout restaurant in the area. They've gotten to know many small business owners along the town's main street, and it's a community where they've felt welcomed and happy. Then COVID-19 struck, and it all changed almost overnight. People in China got sick, the disease spread like wildfire, and the media played up the fact that it had started in the city of Wuhan, in China's Hubei province. The U.S. Administration unfairly dubbed it "the Chinese virus," and within a shockingly short span of time, local customers stopped buying food at this restaurant.

The owner watched in dismay as his long-established reputation as the friendly proprietor of a small local business suddenly gave way to people instead looking at him in anger and suspicion. He heard passersby make racist comments as they hurried past the front door, and he began losing revenue at a frightening rate due to a near-total lack of business from a community that had let fear, paranoia, and bigotry get in the way of common sense and compassion.

To make matters worse, this restaurant owner told me it won't matter much anyway since he is running out of food to serve the few customers who do come by. He no longer receives deliveries of chicken, shrimp, or other staple food items at his restaurant, and he can no longer get packaging supplies to put them in. When he has called suppliers trying to find these goods, he has repeatedly been told they're closed or that they have nothing in inventory to provide to him. The virus hasn't just robbed him of his good standing in the area, thanks to panic and fear—it has made it impossible for him to fight to keep his business open, thanks to a broken supply chain.

The couple fully expect to be out of business by mid-April. It's a near-certainty, the husband told me, as they are losing thousands of dollars a day and can no longer afford to pay their rent. He has already let workers go, and aside from retaining a delivery person, he and his wife are now running the restaurant solo, yet it isn't enough to keep their business afloat. His son and daughter both have apartments in Manhattan, but each has been laid off due to their employers not being able to sustain a remote-working environment, which means he and his wife will now be supporting a family of four despite an impending bankruptcy.

Meanwhile—and this is the part that left me feeling the saddest—he has seen customers still picking up food at nearby restaurants even as they avoid his, confirming that his severe drop in business has largely stemmed from people blaming him, his wife, and their culture for the outbreak. The food he hasn't run out of is thus sitting unsold. As delicious as dinner truly was, the knowledge of why he was giving away food for free—because no one was coming in to buy it—left a bad taste in my mouth.

My heart goes out to this man and his family, who are losing everything due to a combination of a worldwide pandemic, a breakdown in supply chains, and innate human panic. He told me he's been speaking to other business owners along the street, a lot of whom are feeling the same crushing financial burden and are facing the same imminent fate. By his (admittedly anecdotal and non-scientific) estimate, around 80 to 90 percent of the small businesses currently occupying the town's long stretch of store locations will likely go under before this crisis passes, which is heartbreaking.

Sadly, this is one scenario that technology likely can't address, at least not immediately. Even if supply chains were miraculously optimized overnight via widescale RFID deployments, enabling this business owner and others to obtain truckloads of chicken and other necessary items, it wouldn't fix the bigger problem: human nature. Calling COVID-19 the "Chinese virus" is nothing more than fearmongering and bigotry. We didn't refer to typhoid fever, scarlet fever, polio, whooping cough, or measles as the "U.S. virus"—not even when science-denying Americans irrationally refusing to vaccinate their children allowed measles to return in 2014. Such a label doesn't help in the slightest; it just makes matters worse, at a time when we can't dare let it get any worse.

The entire world is in the same boat. The number of cases of COVID-19 are rising daily, with the eventual death toll anticipated to be staggering. We're all vulnerable, on every continent and in every country; it doesn't matter what culture we come from and it doesn't matter where the virus originated. It's time for governments and the masses to stop blaming and fearing, because such attitudes accomplish nothing. There's a secondary pandemic beyond the coronavirus: it's how some people are treating each other because of it.

We need to come together as a species—while physically remaining socially distant, mind you—so that we can help each other get through this crisis. Small businesses are the backbone of human societies. They're a vital cog in the enormous machine that is the worldwide economy, and they rely on healthy supply chains and a demanding customer base. We've just been forcibly reminded how alarmingly easy it is to stop the entire machine by removing the supplies and stifling the demand (see Living in Interesting Times).

It's not a problem we'll be able to alleviate in the short term. This has quickly turned into a long-term scenario that will have consequences for the foreseeable future. (My retirement fund can attest to that fact.) And admittedly, fixing supply chains is not something over which the average person has much individual control. But fearfully refusing to patronize a restaurant just because the owners are from China, at a time when it's vital that we protect small businesses from going under? That's not only bigoted and ignorant, it's shortsighted and counterproductive—and, in the end, it hurts all of us.

Rich Handley is the managing editor of RFID Journal. Rich has authored, edited or contributed to dozens of books about pop culture and is also the editor of Eaglemoss's Star Trek Graphic Novel Collection.