When the 9/11 terrorist attacks stunned the United States almost 19 years ago, Americans were left wondering what they should do to help their country. The US president at the time, George W Bush, looked his people in the eye in an Oval Office address shortly after the attacks, and stunned them all again. Bush told them to go shopping. The Government here could learn a lesson from this.
Bush was criticised about it for years, accused of reducing citizens to little more than economic units at a time of crisis. But his call was essentially the correct one. He was trying to prevent a human tragedy from morphing into an economic disaster.
Terrified Americans were staying away from commerce, needlessly destroying small businesses and livelihoods and causing further misery. Bush’s exhortation helped to spur a mini revival that October that led to a near 4 per cent rise in consumer spending.
Tens of thousands of small businesses survived only because ordinary Americans consciously strived to save them.
The global coronavirus pandemic is incomparable to 9/11. But there is one similarity in terms of the existential threat that has arisen for many small businesses, especially those in retail and hospitality. Frightened people may stay away, rattling SMEs even further.
The State has been stretched to breaking point by the breadth of the crisis and now it is threatened by a new virus: the Government appears riven with cabin fever from spending too long listening to the advice of medics and scientists alone. Ministers have virtually abandoned small businesses by inexplicably risking many of their futures with the most plodding economic reopening anywhere in the western world. Is is like asking Irish SMEs to return to their feet with pianos on their backs. It is daft.
As we enter phase two of the easing of restrictions and many shops reopen next week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is unlikely to pull a 'Dubya' moment and tell us all to go shopping. But this is precisely what those of us who can afford to should do.
It must be done safely, sensibly, and while taking adequate anti-virus precautions. Don’t swarm local shops and hospitality outlets, when the latter are allowed reopen in the weeks ahead. But those of us who retain some ability to spend can limit the economic damage to each other by getting off Amazon.com and making discretionary purchases from local businesses.
We don’t have to rely solely on a tin-eared Government to save SMEs. We can do some of the job ourselves.
The economy is in such dire straits, you can almost hear the Sultans of Swing whistling in the wind. Consumer confidence has plummeted to levels not seen since the depths of the last financial crash. Retail sales were down 43 per cent in April, and that is considered a good result for a lockdown, as shoppers flocked online instead. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are leaching out of the economy.
We haven’t hit the bottom yet. Much of the pain has been dulled by the State’s inflated pandemic unemployment benefits and wage subsidy payments, which have acted like two big economic paracetemol tablets. But those will wear off soon and SMEs, and their workers, will be left howling in pain. Dogs on the street know it, even if policymakers remain in denial about what’s coming.
State figures show household savings actually rose by €3 billion in April, so there is firepower there. Unemployment figures of more than 26 per cent for locked down May don’t tell us the full story, because most of the economy was shuttered. But most economists seem to agree that when the dust settles, the jobless figure should land somewhere in the mid-teens in percentage terms.
The rest of us who manage to hold onto our jobs – the overwhelming majority – will have a golden opportunity to pragmatically help our neighbours to whatever degree we can by opening up our wallets.
It is true that this sounds like an odd call to arms. Superficially, there is something undeniably oily about reducing good citizenship to consumerism even if it is only for a specific time and purpose. When the Great Pandemic of 2020 hit, Grandad, what did you do to help? Well, little Johnny, I bought myself two new pairs of jeans, an Aran jumper and a vintage back scratcher, and then I took your grandmother away to a country house hotel in Wexford. Escape to Victory it is not.
The economy, the real Irish economy, isn’t just Silicon Valley outposts and fatcats running corporations or whatever other anti-business cliché anyone cares to deploy. The local cobbler who mended your shoes before that wedding last summer is the economy. The artisan butcher that is often bypassed to buy vacuum packed meat from a supermarket is the economy. The neighbourhood restaurant is the economy. So is the local pub, and the garden centre, and the furniture shop.
So, for those who can afford to, get out there in coming weeks and show the concern for local businesses that seems absent in the halls of Leinster House. Order some flowers for your spouse, or even your mother-in-law. The shock of it might spur them into doing the same for someone else. Lubricate your wallet hand with plenty of sanitiser, mask up and maintain a respectful social distance from the person in front, and then charge into your local boutique to buy a new outfit. Go on a hiking weekend this summer to Kerry, Donegal or Louth or any place at all – it doesn’t matter where. Ignore the perspex and go for dinner.
It isn’t necessarily materialistic or cold or consumerist. Getting away from online shopping and the fear-laden pursuits of home, and getting out into the local economy and helping Irish SMEs, can be a pragmatic act of solidarity.
It won’t save the world and it won’t help to defeat the coronavirus. But it might help someone.