What constitutes ”essential” and who decides?

Over the lockdown and different phases of prohibitory orders, we have been hearing ‘essential business’, ‘essential workers’, ‘shop only what’s essential’. As businesses, work, and items become divided into the essential and non-essential, there’s little to no-agreement between what constitutes essential. While by definition, essential means ‘absolutely necessary’, are restaurants absolutely necessary. Some say ‘yes’ because they offer meals, but others say ‘no’, you can make your own meals at home. So, the primary question is who decides what is essential and what’s not?

District Administration offices of three districts in the Kathmandu valley have issued a schedule of what businesses can open on what days and what time of the week. According to them, shoes and cosmetic stores can open on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday, while shops dealing in kitchenware can operate on Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday and furniture shops can operate only on Monday and Wednesday. The number of days business is allowed to open is dependent on how essential it is. So, if this were true, my question is what makes kitchenware more essential than furniture and shoes and cosmetics more essential than both of them? This order of essential-ness of businesses seems  to be decided in a haphazard fashion. I doubt if anyone could crack a formula to accurately determine what businesses are essential and in what order.

However, the only way to decide what is essential for whom is to leave that decision to individuals. One thing to note here is that our measure of what is essential is not only affected by what’s physically essential, like food for our body but also what is socially or psychologically essential. For example, in the recent riots related to the procession of Machhindranath chariot, what was a non-negotiable for denizens of Patan, seemed almost frivolous to many outside of the community and culture. What you consider absolutely necessary cannot be the same for others. The decisions related to what’s essential and what is not is very subjective. Thus, instead of a government agency declaring a list of essential and non-essential businesses, these decisions should be left to the discretion of individuals.

Now, you may say not everyone is aware of the risk associated with the Covid-19. But that’s not quite true. Risk is present every day and everywhere. We have made risky choices before the COVID times. With Covid-19, people know they are making risky choices with grave consequences. But as in other times, when they take calculated risks, they also know the cost and pay off of that decision. 

Bidhyalaxmi Maharjan

Bidhyalaxmi is working as Research & Communications Assistant at Samriddhi Foundation. She is a Master of Arts student at Madan Bhandari Memorial College.

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