It’s funny what you remember in moments of crisis. Standing at a near-empty supermarket aisle, I couldn’t recall a single recipe, sage internet advice or faces of oddly calming chefs – a cardigan-clad Ottolenghi next to some salads, for example – which usually helps.
Instead, I got flashbacks to high school economics: the concept of “needs versus wants”. For something I thought I mastered at 16, it turns out to be far more complicated in a pandemic. That, plus the fact that I have never had to justify why I was panic-buying tomato paste.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced stage one of coronavirus lockdown measures, which includes the closure of “non-essential services”. These apply to clubs, social venues, churches, plus cafes and restaurants which will switch to takeaway-only services. Drastic restrictions, he says, that will remain in place for months.
Like many cities in lockdown, supermarkets and pharmacies are deemed ‘essential services’ and will remain open – though it didn’t stop the PM from issuing a stern warning against a new wave of panic-buying.
“Stop hoarding. I can’t be more blunt about it,” Morrison said in a press conference earlier last week, “It is not helpful and it has been one of the most disappointing things I have seen in Australian behaviour in response to this crisis.”
In the past month, panic-buying sparked by the spread of coronavirus has left supermarkets with a shortage of essentials nationwide. No longer are we laughing at doomsday preppers who stockpiled enough 2-ply for a gastrointestinally-challenged lifetime. In a matter of days, non-perishables followed suit: flour, pasta, tinned and frozen goods, nut milk previously untouched by dairy drinkers – all disappearing off the shelves.
Call this ‘calamity capitalism’. David Sanders, owner of an online retailer of ‘survival supplies’, jokingly coined the term in an interview with Slate. In times of profound uncertainty, buying becomes a self-soothing act – an attempt, albeit flawed – to regain a degree of control and mitigate distress.
In times of profound uncertainty, buying becomes a self-soothing act – an attempt, albeit flawed – to regain a degree of control and mitigate distress.
In early March, The New Yorker writer Helen Rosner found herself at the heartland of frayed nerves in Costco, a bulk-buying haven overtaken by “Hamsterkäufe”: a German word that means “to shop like a nervous, bulging-cheeked hamster.”
Once ‘crisis mode’ has been switched on, it’s a contagion to which few of us are immune. “Do I need three giant jars of kimchi, 15 boxes of fancy pasta, a huge sack of paella rice, and enough dried chickpeas and broad beans to open a falafel joint?” Rosner asked. “No, of course not. But I remind myself that, in more human-scale quantities, they’re the groceries I’d buy anyway, and I lie to myself that it helps.”
Back at the supermarket aisle, I gave up the pipe dream of buying a single tube of tomato paste. Days ago, I had gifted a crappy half tube of it – as if a good bottle of wine – to my dinner partner who invested in me what was left of his pantry pasta.
The very next morning, I felt a small pang of regret.
There’s a strange terror in seeing the bare iron ribs of grocery store shelves. We’re told by our leaders not to worry. But when we witness basic supplies running out, hear hotels being approached as quarantine wards, fast-fashion chains mobilised to produce ‘personal protective equipment’ and car factories being approved to make ventilators – we can’t help but to want to “feel prepared”.
And in these extraordinary times, our desire to stockpile is best treated not so much as a moral failing – but a very real longing for peace of mind. It helps, then, to question what we see as “wants” versus “needs”. Pasta, rice, sugar and flour might be essential – but how much of it? And are everyday comforts always necessary? Or could they be accepted as wants if it means being able to share that sense of reprieve with others? To give the elderly, the mentally and physically vulnerable a fighting chance?
Because no matter what textbooks say, we are more than bipedal ‘rational consumers’. And the key to curb our stockpiling might just be to nod to our fears at the supermarket aisle, politely step back 1.5 metres, and – like the government advised – resist the urge to cozy up to them.
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