Non-essentials in a pandemic: Essentially, the economy counts on them

Sidelines is a column by CGTN's Social Media Desk. This article is an observation on the coming China International Fair of Trade in Services 2020.

A few weeks after the first recorded COVID-19 pandemic threw the city of Wuhan into lockdown, a local friend of this columnist complained that he was desperate for a cup of real coffee. 

Being an only son and a father of two, his coffee bean inventory wasn't important as a city-wide lockdown began. It was only after the essential needs of fresh vegetables and meat, face masks and medicine had been met did his caffeine withdrawal occur to him. By then the city's cafes had long been shut as non-essential services. Tired of instant coffee, he texted us asking half-jokingly if anyone outside Wuhan could bother mailing over some canned coffee beans. Before we seriously discussed the idea he quickly admitted that it was just a tantrum and not worth to inundating the city's already overwhelmed logistics services.

For the rest of us living elsewhere, with smaller COVID-19 outbreaks than Wuhan, the sudden division of everyday life between the essential and non-essential felt just as annoying. Deliveries were delayed, travel restricted, social gatherings prohibited. Stripped of all non-essentials, life became tedious, but could go on. The message was indisputable: A miserable life is better than a miserable death.

The pent-up annoyance of living without the non-essentials waned pretty fast after the epidemic was quelled and the economy reopened nationwide. But the bill into which the annoyance translated may be not very easy to foot at the same speed. Most non-essential needs we forewent fall into the service sector, the largest contributor to China's growth and employment, meaning many people's livelihoods depend on them. Retail, travel, catering and housing were all in shock when China was wrestling with the outbreaks. The overall service sector in the world's second largest economy contracted by 1.6 percent in the first half of 2020. Recovering lost ground takes time for at least three reasons. It costs both time and money to establish new businesses where the old ones went bankrupt. Confidence collapses fast but comes back slow. This applies to both consumers and investors. The concern for a second wave of the pandemic particularly rains on the latter's willingness to expand in an absence of a watertight vaccine. Jobs easily wiped out may not be easily created. Where they are, unemployed people still need to fast belt before new income flows in.

China is clawing back from concession the fastest among the world's leading economies, attesting to the effectiveness of its COVID-19 policies. The success stories of online service suppliers such as e-shopping and gaming platforms also provide some comfort. But as the tertiary sector's definition suggests – it covers "intangible products" – a contraction in the sector points to intangible loss that's hard to define in money terms. Of which, upset caused by the denial of quality coffee is just a minor example.

For example, education. School students' performance tends to suffer after long absence from classroom. The findings conventionally associated with lengthy summer vacations could be revealing about what teachers will soon notice in the new semester. Online courses can supplement in big cities. But patchy infrastructure disadvantages students in developing areas.

China's focussed battle against COVID-19 pre-empted a national public health crisis, avoiding prolonged treatment delays for other severe health conditions in hospitals. Doctors can breathe a sigh of relief with vigorous control of local outbreaks. People going to hospital no longer fear that they are running into an infection cluster. Nonetheless, the authority still needs to stay alert to the squeeze on medical resources should a second wave of COVID strike.


It was a luxury to talk about the economic consequence of not having quality coffee or any other "non-essential" services when the coronavirus was lurking around. It would be a mistake not to review it now. After Wuhan, China's lightening speed anti-COVID strategy has been proved successful in Jilin, Beijing and Xinjiang, all witnessing outbreaks and stamping out the emergency within weeks. That may afford China a little bit more flexibility with lockdown measures should COVID-19 make a return, preventing collateral damage from shutting down all the "non-essential" parts of the economy.

This topic will be high on the agenda of the coming China International Fair for Trade in Services. And CGTN will pursue it closely. Nearly every country is struggling with balancing the missions of containing the virus and reviving the economy. China's experience therefore is more valuable than the depth of Chinese consumer's pocket.

In the meantime, knowing that the measures most likely to be adopted in an event of a second wave (as evidenced in New Zealand and Australia following the most recent outbreaks) will remain a large share of the economy being shut own to save lives, your columnist will venture this advice: Be it quality or not, drink your coffee when it's still warm.