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COVID's legacy of change
Now and Then
roger branch

From the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to the present, a message has come like a drum beat. “Together we will get through this and return to normal, actually better and stronger.” Is this Pollyanna talk or whistling through the graveyard?

What’s with “together” when the country is so divided that many will not even agree to wear masks to protect others? How can everything be better when the nature of the disease is still only partly known, when control over it is still months away?

How can the country be better? Over a quarter of a million people have died, a number that is predicted to double before this beast is beaten. These are real people with families and friends who cannot even mourn their losses in normal ways.

This country has faced major challenges before and, in spite of present internal strife, will almost certainly prevail again as in the past. However, there will be significant changes, the nature of which remains mostly unknown. It is clear that problems must be addressed in educational systems and in medicine from research to care delivery.

The national epidemic is challenging the economic system from people’s access to food to failing businesses. Almost unnoticed is the way it has sped up change in the way people purchase goods and services. Call it e-commerce or online/distance buying — which was already the way many people conducted business — it has received a tremendous boost by COVID confinement. “Can’t go to the store? Just connect with Amazon.” New e-commerce customers are finding the ease and convenience to be irresistible.

As a member of the old fogey generation, I am not enamored with e-commerce. I lack the tech savvy needed to be comfortable with this way of doing business, but the main thing is that I want to see, smell, touch, try on clothes, etc., before I buy. I remember back to my youth when things that arrived in the mail from Sears and Roebuck looked different than they did in the catalog. Maybe I could get used to ordering some things from Amazon, but I could never bring myself to buy a car from the outfit that sells automobiles online. No, I have to sit in the seats, check out gadgets, dicker with salesmen and check with competing dealerships on prices before buying. A car is far too important to be handled so impersonally.

The most important consequence of expanding e-commerce is its impact upon local business. From locally owned “mom and pop” stores to large department stores representing regional or national chains, all are affected. None are too strong to fail. Statesboro has seen its share of failures, notably Kmart, JCPenney and Winn-Dixie.

So, what? Well, there are two serious “so whats.” First, there are people who cannot “do” e-commerce. They are mostly the elderly and/or poor. They don’t have computers or internet access. Even if they did, they might not know how to use them. Such folks need healthy local businesses from which to secure food, clothing and services. They need to be able to talk to someone in person if issues arise. The absence of such local contacts for electrical power and telephone service has proved this point over and over.

The other “so what” is loss of tax base for city and county governments. They operate on ad valorem taxes on the assessed value of personal and other property, business licenses, sales taxes, fees and fines. Every time a local business closes, there is a loss of property taxes, sales taxes and a license fee. There is no income from e-commerce except perhaps from local facilities for package delivery companies.

Some basic services must be provided by city and county: police and fire protection, governmental operations and public education, to cite the obvious. Without funds from businesses, local governments are forced back on the other basic source of revenue, property taxes on homes, farms and surviving businesses. That creates a disproportionately heavy burden on older property owners, most of whom live on fixed incomes.

A partial solution that has been suggested for the problem of loss of income to e-commerce is to require online sales companies to collect sales taxes for states and local governments. This still does not make up for lost property taxes but is significant. However, it gets into the area of regulation of interstate commerce — a function of federal government — and there has been no enthusiasm for that “burden” on big business in Washington, D.C. During the busy 2020 political season, this remedy has not been proposed by any candidate from any party at any level except for one who bragged about opposing it.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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