Stay tuned: If you signed up for the new limited-run email newsletter, Understandably: Working From Home, I plan to send the first edition this afternoon.
If you haven’t signed up, here’s your chance.
Oh man, where to begin this morning?
Let’s start with Matt Colvin, an Air Force veteran and “retail arbitrager” from Hickson, Tennessee. He’s spent 10 years buying products at dollar stores and flea markets, and selling them for a markup on Amazon and Ebay.
Last Friday, nobody knew who he was. Then, the New York Times ran a story on people who had bulk-bought the nation's retail supplies of hand sanitizer, planning to sell them for a tremendous markup on Amazon and Ebay.
For a while it worked. Colvin sold 300 bottles online for between $8 and $70 each, he said, before Amazon started cracking down on price gouging.
Then, he let a Times photographer follow him to his home and a storage locker where he was keeping 17,000 more bottles that he could no longer sell online.
“If I can make a slight profit, that’s fine,” he said in the Times. “But I’m not looking to … make the front page of the news for being that guy who hoarded 20,000 bottles of sanitizer that I’m selling for 20 times what they cost me.”
Of course, that’s exactly what happened: he became “that guy.” Within 24 hours:
Tennessee’s attorney general was investigating him.
His social media inboxes and cell phone voicemail were filled with vile threats.
Amazon and eBay had suspended him.
By Sunday evening, Colvin had done a complete 180, and donated his entire stockpile. In a second interview with the NYT, he sounded remorseful.
“It was never my intention to keep necessary medical supplies out of the hands of people who needed them,” he told the Times, which said he was crying during the conversation.
You can feel sorry for Colvin, or you can feel like he got what's coming.
But I think there’s a big lesson here—and it’s not just “don’t brag about your shady business to the New York Times.”
Our country and most of the world are undergoing sudden, radical change. We hope it’s temporary, but it probably won’t be quick. At my age, I guess I’d compare it to 9/11, but this feels bigger and more uncertain.
We’re being asked, while everything around us seems like it’s falling apart, to make personal sacrifices to help people we may never know.
In fact, we might never even know, other than in a statistical sense, that we were any help at all.
The right thing can seem difficult to identify under those circumstances, never mind to choose. But it seems like the “wrong things” are becoming increasingly clear.
Don’t hoard. Don’t be selfish. Don’t be “that guy,” in whatever definition—the one who sees a way to profit from everyone else’s misery, or who insists on thumbing their nose at everyone else’s sacrifice.
For now, that’s the bar. “Do the right thing” might be too much to expect. So at least, maybe we can ask each other: “Don’t do the wrong things.”
And we can work up from there.
12 other things worth your time
I couldn’t stop at just 7 today; and in fact I could have easily kept going.
So much has happened since Friday. Here’s a good wrap-up article as of last night, that isn’t behind some kind of paywall. (Associated Press)
This graphics simulation of quarantines, social distancing, “flattening the curve” and viral outbreaks does a nice job of explaining why everyone is being asked to stay at home to the maximum extent possible right now. (The Washington Post. $, possibly—although it seems they might be waiving the paywall)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends canceling all events with more than 50 people for the next eight weeks, including "conferences, festivals, parades, concerts, sporting events, weddings, and other types of assemblies,” but not necessarily the day-to-day operations of “schools, institutes of higher learning, or businesses.” (CDC official statement)
The fed slashed its target interest rate to zero, and is buying $700 billion in government and mortgage-related bonds, in the most dramatic economy-boosting move since the 2008 financial crisis. (Vox $)
A leaked secret British government document predicts the coronavirus epidemic might well last until next spring in the UK, and could lead to 7.9 million people being hospitalized. (The Guardian)
President Trump held another briefing Sunday, saying there’s “there's no need to hoard” supplies, and adding: “We’re doing great, it all will pass.” (Fox News)
In New York City alone: schools will close, all restaurants and bars will close (although takeout and delivery will be allowed), all movie theaters, etc. will close. The fact that this is the seventh item here tells you how much America has changed in less than a week or 10 days.
Worldwide: Ireland is closing all pubs for two weeks. (Remember Tuesday is St. Patrick's Day). The Netherlands announced a lockdown that will last until April 6. Austria banned gatherings of more than five people and won't let anyone in the country who has been in Britain, the Netherlands, Russia or Ukraine. (NYT, paywall is waived)
California urges all people over age 65 to stay home. Puerto Rico imposes the strictest curfew (9 p.m. to 5 a.m.). The NYC St. Patrick's Day Parade is postponed. Ohio and Illinois are closing bars and restaurants. I can’t even list all the school systems that are closing—including my daughter’s, for the next two to five weeks. (Same NYT article)
The Peace Corps is suspending operations and sending all volunteers home. (Peace Corps)
There were massive crowds and waits of up to 10 hours to get through airport customs over the weekend, as Americans who had been in Europe scrambled to return to the United States. The governor of Illinois took to Twitter.
There was a Democratic debate last night. The lead is that Joe Biden, who is at this point almost certain to be the nominee, committed to choosing a woman as his running mate. (NBC News)
Finally, I wrote a few non-coronavirus things over the weekend, tops among them:
another angle on my Sandra Boynton story,
my take on how you can trace Bill Gates’s decision to quit the Microsoft board to a lunch he had in 1991, which is where he met Warren Buffett,
and the most popular from a reader perspective: my take on McDonald’s decision to roll out two new versions of the Big Mac. (Me, on Inc.)
Ideas and feedback actively solicited. If you haven’t subscribed to this main “mother ship” version of Understandably, please do so!
(You can also just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
If you liked this post, please share it!
One-click review and feedback: