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E-commerce during the pandemic: A disaster waiting to happen?

While e-commerce is experiencing a massive surge as customers find themselves stuck at home, it brings with it an understated risk.

Reports have stated that the novel coronavirus can survive on surfaces for varying durations of time If we come into contact with contaminated surfaces, then touch our eyes, nose or mouth, there is a possibility to be infected with COVID-19 Does this mean there is a chance packages or food ordered online could bring the virus into our homes?

Unlike other sectors that have suffered as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, e-commerce is enjoying its moment in the spotlight as customers find that the only way they can access most products is through online purchases. This has pushed businesses that have long relied on a brick-and-mortar sales models to rush to make the transition online. Restuarants, groceries stores, malls, and more have had to resort to e-retail. Some already had experience with this new service model – others didn’t. 

The problem is, there are risks to rushing the jump to e-commerce with little to no prior experience, especially during the time of a pandemic. 

“Handle with care” takes on a whole new meaning

So what risks are we talking about exactly? Besides the discrepancies in finances that might arise following an uneducated shift to an e-commerce model, or the inexperience in handling customer expectations and relations, one problem is on our minds: What if a parcel or package we’ve ordered is contaminated with the virus?

Say you order a box of face masks online – or anything else really – or order some food takeout – how would you know that the person handling your package or food was following hygiene standards, or even not infected themselves? 

It’s a grim scenario to consider, but just last week Americans were faced with this very question. 

Last week, over 30 workers at an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey were confirmed to have contracted COVID-19, according to sources at the facility and as reported by Business Insider (BI). An Amazon spokesperson confirmed that there were more than 30 cases, but wouldn’t specify an exact number, BI said.

“Our building during one day shift has over 500 people in the building at once. There’s no way to properly distance yourself when running at that capacity. And every day they’re hiring more and more people,” one Amazon employee told BI, under the guise of anonymity.

Luckily, cases like this have been anomalies, not the majority. After all, we have seen companies across the world, and especially in the Middle East, take all the precautions necessary to limit the possibility of viral transmission among staff, as well as the transmission of droplets to customer goods. 

For example, food and grocery delivery apps like Talabat have put in place many precautions and measures to put customers at ease. They have made contactless and cashless deliveries possible, equipped their drivers with the appropriate protective gear and ordered them to sanitize their hands 3 times during every order process.

Now, let’s look at the science behind the virus’s survival on surfaces.

Read: Exclusive: The impact of COVID-19 on the tech sector – Q & A

How long can the virus live on surfaces?

There have been multiple reports on how long the virus can live on surfaces, with no conclusive evidence, as there remains a lot scientists don’t know about COVID-19.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “studies have shown that the COVID-19 virus can survive for up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel, less than 4 hours on copper and less than 24 hours on cardboard.”

Top healthcare website WebMD said that “the coronavirus can live for hours to days on surfaces like countertops and doorknobs. How long it survives depends on the material the surface is made from:

  • Plastic: 2-3 days
  • Stainless Steel: 2-3 days
  • Cardboard: 24 hours
  • Copper: 4 hours
  • Aluminum: 2-8 hours
  • Glass: Up to 5 days
  • Ceramics: 5 days
  • Paper: From a few minutes to 5 days
  • Food: Coronavirus doesn’t seem to spread through exposure to food. Still, it’s a good idea to wash fruits and vegetables under running water before you eat them.”

Additionally, some reports have stated that the virus could potentially survive on surfaces for 9 days, yet conslusiveness regarding this is scarce. It is not clear how temperature, humidity and other factors affect the virus’ survivability rate on these surfaces.

According to the CDC, “it is unlikely to be spread from domestic or international mail, products or packaging. However, it may be possible that people can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.” 

When it comes to ordering goods online that arrive in cardboard packaging, the virus would perish within 24 hours on that surface, according to WedMD’s data. Therefore, the virus is often likely to expire over long-distance shipping, though it could be reinfected by the delivery personnel delivering it to your door, so it’s always advised to practice caution. 

Considering all this information, and to be safe, it’s always better to wash down any goods you bring home with disnifectants and cleaning products, as well as to clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water. Additionally, opt for contactless or online payment rather than cash on delivery, and consider no-contact deliveries so you can avoid contact with drivers.

With so little known about the virus even after months of its discovery, prevention remains the best medicine. 

Read: Privacy vs. Safety: Which comes first during a pandemic?