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Coronavirus Turns USA Into A Third World Country

A taste of how the rest of the world lives.

Coronavirus line in front of supermarket
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ASTORIA, NYC- My daughter Petra asked me to pick up some baker’s yeast as I was stepping out to pick up some food at the supermarket around the corner. She’s 10 years old and likes to bake. A good quarantine activity — cook, eat, cook, eat.

I didn’t think anything of the request but when I went to the baking section of the store the shelf was completely bare. No flour. No sugar. No yeast. I guess the rest of the city had the same idea as my kid.

So I went to another supermarket.

Same thing.

I asked the manager about it.

“It’s rationed. I don’t know when we’re going to get any more in.”

“It’s rationed?”

“Yeah, it’s rationed.”

He just said a word that I’d never thought I’d hear in America, the land of plenty where you have a thousand options to get whatever you want whenever you want it. It’s rationed. What? Rationed? Isn’t that something from the Soviet Union?

There are now long lines outside of all the supermarkets in NYC. As we socially distance, stores want to limit the amount of people they allow in at any one time. However, people still need to eat, so the lines often stretch down the street and around the block. Sometimes it takes a half hour just to get inside a supermarket. The people standing in these lines, myself included, look grim and downtrodden. Reminds me of the bread lines in post-WWII Germany.

Coronavirus line in front of supermarket

When I finally got inside the other day I did my shopping and then went to check out. The line stretched all the way to the back of the supermarket just to turn 180 degrees and extend all the way down an aisle back to the front of the store. Only one cashier was working.

A guy standing in line behind me began yelling at the manager. He just stared back at him and shrugged, “Nobody wants to work.”

Amazon is bare. They are not restocking all “non-essential” products. So if you want to buy, say, some exercise equipment because all the gyms are closed, expect to pay $300 per dumbbell and not have it delivered for a month.

If you want to make an order of food on Amazon Fresh, good luck. Whereas in China people were able to depend on food delivery services during their lock down, in the USA our equivalents were not up to the task. Even if you can get a delivery time — which is nearly impossible — half the things that you want to buy are going to be out of stock and much of what you do receive is going to be on the verge of expiration or otherwise inedible. So we all need to go out in public and stand in long lines in supermarkets with dozens of people — not exactly the best social distancing strategy.

Empty supermarket shelves

Speaking of exercise equipment, the entire country is out. Everybody bought up current stocks when the gyms closed and the factories that make everything in China have been shut down for months. There is no longer any supply — something that I’ve never seen before in the USA during my lifetime.

After an hour and a half of searching, I was able to find an obscure fitness store in Tennessee that had some dumbbells. I ordered a few. They made it as far as New Jersey. Officially, FedEx reported that the package was damaged and undeliverable. Unofficially, the guy from the store believes that someone at FedEx stole them as they’ve become such a rare commodity.

But it’s not just the scarcity that’s the issue, but this crisis — as crises tend to do — has revealed some glaring cracks in the system. A huge swath of the USA was suddenly laid off, but many states’ unemployment systems were able to handle the surge in applicants. Some states, such as NY and Connecticut, have labor departments running computer equipment and operating systems from the 70s and 80s. Connecticut actually had to call people out of retirement because nobody knows the coding language of their computer systems anymore.

Meanwhile, millions — literally millions — of people have been spending entire days calling their respective unemployment offices thousands of times to receive benefits … only to receive a busy signal.

We can no longer get anything we want when we want it in the USA and we’re pouting about it and throwing tantrums.

We’re now receiving a taste of how the rest of the world lives, and we don’t like it.

Not being able to get everything you want immediately, rations, standing in long lines, stores having depleted stocks and not enough workers, mass unemployment, and broken public administration systems are all things that much of the world has to deal with on a daily basis.

While I too get frustrated in this coronavirus upheaval, the contrast between how things are now and how things usually are makes me realize how good people have it in the USA. This isn’t normal here and it makes me appreciate the normal that we usually have.


Filed under: Epidemics, New York City, USA

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

18 comments… add one

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  • Trevor April 14, 2020, 12:03 pm

    This is a ‘hole’ new era.

    Dad said rationing in UK went on til ’47 but dt quote me on that.

    Here the shelves look normal. No one has cash to flash re panic buying. Vegetables are grown here, they export to Nairobi. Will be crap if those locusts return.

    The supermarket seems devoid of customers now but well stocked.

    The guys here have home made dumbbells. A metal bar and concrete.

    We all ate together today. I was cooking Ugali (with a bit of help) for 8. Am gonna get some photos up.

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    • Wade Shepard April 14, 2020, 8:08 pm

      That’s cool. Yes, include that meal story in part 2 of your series.

      Yes, it’s places farther outside of the global economic grid with shorter chains of dependency that are going to get through this crisis the best. When communities grow their own food and make their own dumbbells what can stop them?

      Excellent that things seem to be going well for you there. Tell your friends we say hi!

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      • Trevor April 15, 2020, 1:05 am

        Great post on ur new site!
        They are digging themselves a big big hole.
        But i recall from that touristy place near Guilin, forget the name, where the pic is on the 20RMB note, food stalls saying ‘no japanese’

        Some one tweeted a pic of an African leader shaking hands with a Chinese MP saying basically YOU GAVE US CORONA AND NOW YOU ARE SELLING US MASKS AND TESTING EQUIPMENT..

        Some one is making money out of this.

        I get called Corona a few times when i go out but yesterday 1 guy said, “friend, don’t go back to your country. Corona is killing everyone there”.

        Life in town is much quieter. 60% are wearing masks, 10% dt have one and the rest hav it around their throats like a fashion accessory. Reminded me of female soldiers in Israel with their semi automatics dangling off their shoulders like a handbag

        I feel for MRP . Wife is dealing with the paperwork so they can keep being ‘out there’ but Yunan aint that big. Least hes got Meili snow mountain to gawp at. Maybe he can do a STUCK IN CHINA post. Having lived in a parking lot and now being stuck in China, just like in LOST HORIZON awesome read! btw which is apt as the book is based on Shangri La and that is literally down the road.

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        • Wade Shepard April 15, 2020, 10:49 am

          It’s going to be really interesting to see how this plays out. Either everybody forgets and goes back to normal or there are going to be some very fundamental changes as far as how the countries of the world relate to China.

          Haha, they call you Corona. At least right now it’s playful… include that in the next part of this series!

          Yes, a story from MRP about being stuck in Shangrila would be excellent!

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        • MRP April 17, 2020, 3:34 am

          Hiw long before parts of the USA are the 3rd world 🤪

          Wow, quarantine – in Dali, at least – was much easier in China. At the height of the mess, while most places were closed; supermarkets were well stocked and relaxed. Albeit, with temperature checks at doors, and everyone masked.

          Just to clarify, since then, travel has been remote, going to amazing off-track villages. The travel paperwork was only for a stay at a remote village guesthouse that we hiked to, and was all done via mobile phone communication.

          However, traveling beyond Yunnan, later, things may get sticky.

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          • Wade Shepard April 17, 2020, 12:13 pm

            Yeah, it’s funny, man. A lot of big cities in China seem to have been locked down way less than they are in the USA. I remember interviewing an American guy in Nanjing at the height of the pandemic there who was still going out drinking and said that most stores were still open.

            Have fun out there! Wish I could join.

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  • Jack April 16, 2020, 1:07 pm

    I’m pissing people off, I realize, by saying things like this:

    “I bought my dumbells in February and paid the normal price”
    “I bought my yeast in January. There was tons of it available”
    “I bought my hand sanitizer in January and February and there were no supply issues”
    “I bought my masks in January before all the Chinese could buy them up.”

    I realize that I sound like a real dick so I just keep quiet.

    And the one thing I didn’t buy lots of? TP. I’m a traveler at heart and after enough time in Asia, I realize that you can live without TP if you have to. I remember at the height of that craze, I saw people visibly cringing because they had to be buy the super cheap TP. I didn’t laugh out loud at them.

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    • Wade Shepard April 16, 2020, 8:28 pm

      No, keep bragging about it. People need to hear it when then screw up and when people do things better than them. One way that people learn is through modeling after other people around them. When everyone doesn’t prepare then nothing is learned. But when some dickhead is like, “You all are stupid, how could you not know this was coming!?! I’ve been prepared for months” they may groan but the next time they are going to want to be the ones doing the boasting haha!

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  • Lawrence April 17, 2020, 2:05 am

    These same contradictions are here. Social distancing is rigidly enforced in random beaches and other outdoor areas (not too bad in New South Wales) but then shopping centres are open and no one seems to enforce anything. It does make you wonder if this is a big deal or not.

    You mentioned people pouting and chucking tantrums immediately after talking about not being able to access unemployment services…it seems fair to get angry about that. Or are people being petty about other things?

    There could be some nice permanent changes from this but who knows. If it goes for a year then I think there will be permanent changes. If it opens back up in May or June then I think this will be that weird time period in early 2020.

    I genuinely hope NFL comes back on time. I am not a huge football fan but I think it would be good for people’s morale. I really do. One of the strangest things about this how the more ‘left’governments (specifically state govts in Aus and USA) have shown themselves to be quite the power trippers while the ‘right’ seem to want to give people personal responsibility and some optimism. Opinion polls seem to show people prefer the ‘right,’ which makes certain segments of the media just explode with anger.

    There is a left leaning govt in Victoria and, man, listening to that guy speak you might as well and go separate from your family and write a will. Whereas the in New South Wales they have been quite positive and trying to keep schools open and disrupt business the least. That is an oversimplification but I think optimism is important and people latch on to it.

    Crazy times

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    • Wade Shepard April 17, 2020, 12:10 pm

      I was pouting and chucking tantrums too haha. Yeah, it was nuts — you’d call 1,000 times, get through, and then be hung up on by an automatic recording, just to have to call 1,000 times again and have the same thing happen.

      It is interesting about the left and right in this. The left seems to have invested a lot of political capital into making this seem as bad as it possibly can be. For example, in NYC they are retroactively counting deaths as being from Covid-19 who didn’t even test positive based on a doctor’s assumption that they may have had it.

      It seems odd to say it, but the left is really making the right appear rational.

      While this pisses people off, the fact of the matter is that, relatively speaking, the death toll isn’t that high anywhere and hospitals are not being overrun.

      It’s my impression that the virus spread faster than anyone realized and that huge amounts have already been infected who have no idea and are currently immune. I predict a drastic drop in cases soon and have this all fizzle out relatively quickly with politicians from all sides claiming that they saved us. But I could be wrong.

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      • Jack April 20, 2020, 10:45 am

        I don’t think it’s a problem to retroactively count them as positive. Depending on when the person is actually tested, a coin flip might be just as accurate. At best, the false negative rate is 27% but mostly is about 35%.

        My wife went to the doctor and she was tested(SHOCK!) and tested negative, despite showing the symptoms. Doctor actually told her that she should assume she has it, even if the test is negative. I had the symptoms worse, but they wouldn’t test me. I had an on and off mild fever, some coughing, body pains, swollen lymph nodes, and a blood oxygen level that was very bad. I could have been admitted for my oxygen level if I had been brave enough to go to the hospital. Neither my wife nor me are listed as confirmed cases.

        I agree wholeheartedly with your last paragraph. We are probably sitting at 30 million infections right now. Most of my symptoms were things I could have and would have ignored. If I hadn’t bought a pulse oximeter as part of my preps in February, I wouldn’t have known just how bad my oxygen level was. It was 93 to 94 for the better part of 3 weeks and even lower than that at times. On one night I came close to going to the ER. Generally I felt rundown and like crap. I think 70 to 80% of the people who get this won’t know they had it and the real fatality rate is going to be about 0.5%. You might have already had it, Wade.

        Politicians are going to claim victory over this……but I also believe that most of the cases will be in the fall……after the politicians have claimed victory.

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        • Wade Shepard April 20, 2020, 12:22 pm

          Hello Jack,

          What bothers me about them retroactively counting people who were never tested is that it seems less a way to be more transparent or accurate but to boost the numbers as high as possible so the governor can whine to the federal government about how we need more funding — or, worse, to make it look like more peopled died early on so it can be blamed on the president… and better show how Super Governor swooped in and saved lives.

          “Politicians are going to claim victory over this……but I also believe that most of the cases will be in the fall……after the politicians have claimed victory.”

          Yes, definitely. This is their next election platform.

          Sucks to hear how you were ill. But hopefully you had it and can’t get it again. So maybe this was a good thing?

          The reports of immunity potentially not being possible is what’s frightening. Wouldn’t that make a vaccine moot? Right now I’m choosing not to value those reports — they seem to not be based on much, and who believes the WHO anymore anyway? But if they are correct then we’re probably looking at martial law and actual riots. They can’t keep us locked up for years.

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          • Jack April 20, 2020, 2:12 pm

            Yeah I don’t trust the lack of immunity reports. It seems like it’s designed to scare. Politicians love fear.

            What I do know is this thing goes on and on and it can seem like you are over it and then boom it’s back. It’s not reinfection it’s just a resurgence in symptoms.

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            • Wade Shepard April 20, 2020, 2:32 pm

              Man, I’m glad you came out of it alright! That sounds like it sucks.

              Want to do a post on here about your experiences through the pandemic and how you prepared?

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            • Wade Shepard April 23, 2020, 4:25 pm

              Hey Jack,

              NY just came out with some widespread Covid-19 antibody tests. They showed that over 20% of NYC had already been infected .You know what the infection fatality rate is now? Around 0.5% haha.

              (I haven’t dug too deep into this, just thought it was interesting as that’s what we figured over a month ago.)

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  • Bob L May 4, 2020, 11:43 am

    I think it would be great if you did a few more articles on how things are and were in NYC. Up here in the farther north east, things are just fine. For now anyway. We have had very few deaths. Have only just barely gotten above 100 hospitalized at one time in all our hospitals combined. The majority of the deaths were in nursing homes. Now that we are opening up, I expect that all the numbers will rise, especially as some will take opening up as a sign that all is clear. Some never believed it was an issue anyway. Some will just be so tired of everything that they will just be willing to take the risks. I have been riding my motorcycle a lot (I don’t own a car, so there is that) but have not been going as far, as there are not a lot of places to go. There are plenty of restaurants offering food pickup, but that is no fun, I would rather sit in a cafe and have coffee and….

    My biggest complaint is that I cannot plan anything for the future. I don’t know when I will be able to travel again, what the restrictions will be, what will be open, how things will change from day to day. It looks like my best choice will be to forget about the international travel for a while and concentrate on travel in the US only, with plenty of tent camping along the way.

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    • Jack May 4, 2020, 1:55 pm

      Yeah if the campgrounds are open. Our campgrounds are closed in Iowa. I have a popup camper outside just waiting to be used…..

      I’d love to leave the US and travel, but they just updated the State Department website to tell us that passports are delayed for several months……I put in an application for kids’ passport renewals in early March……so the wait will be long one.

      It’s funny the things that you get most irritated with…I don’t care that restaurants and bars are closed. I care about campgrounds and passports.

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    • Wade Shepard May 4, 2020, 10:09 pm

      Hello Bob,

      I have a post about this that I’ve been holding for a while. I will get it published tomorrow.

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