Words by Anna Day
Feature image by Callum Muzyka
My fingers twitch towards it in the supermarket aisle. I make the snap-decision. The plastic-wrapped bundle makes a satisfying thooft as it lands in my trolley. As I continue down the aisle, my chest untightens a bit—A tension I didn’t realise I was carrying around temporarily relaxes. All thanks to an extra set of toilet paper that realistically I won’t need until another two weeks. It’s not like I’m one of them, I tell myself as a go through the self serve. I’m not panic buying really, I mentally argue with myself as I bag my shopping. I just want the peace of mind that I’ll be able to wipe my ass for the short-term foreseeable future. “Is that too much to ask?” I wail into the skies in the Coles car park. Packets of pasta split and cans of beans roll under parked cars as I sink onto the asphalt. The world might actually be ending.
What you just witnessed, dear reader, was a dramatised retelling of my experience during a shopping outing in early March 2020. While the supermarket shelves are looking comparatively more lush these days, it was only a couple of months ago that they were running on empty.
Even though the coronavirus is showing signs of slowing down, the idea of our empty supermarket shelves still leaves me wondering: how did we, and in particular, I, get there?
Well, it turns out it has everything to do with our psychology. In an article written in late March for The Conversation, psychologist Chris Stiff theorised that in the corona crisis everyone essentially falls into two very broad categories: greedy people or fearful people. Greedy people are the ones who were out in the beginning with trolleys full of toilet paper and pasta, knocking down little, old ladies as they went. The bottom line for greedy people is they don’t care about anyone else as long as they are a-okay. Fearful people are a bit different. They want to do the right, “socially responsible” thing but are influenced by the fear of greedy people’s actions. For them, the bottom line is they don’t want to end up with the sucker’s payoff. That is, they tried to shop responsibility by only purchasing what they needed at any given time and ended up worse off for it.
So while I wanted to be a good person and do the right thing, I fell albeit momentarily for an overriding human emotion: fear. In retrospect, fear has contributed to a fair few negative feelings I’ve had over the last few months. It manifested as an internal aggression towards people not keeping the distance or elderly people out on seemingly non-essential business. I also felt very angry when I found out my friend Madi Bogisch couldn’t buy the Ventolin she needed as a chronic asthmatic.
“At the beginning of March there were reports of people buying up to 15 Ventolin inhalers at once,” Madi says.
“Subsequently, pharmacies were then having to order double the amount of Ventolin to keep up with demand, then put a limit of 1-2 Ventolins per purchase and in some instances were even running out of stock.
“As both my sister and I are chronic asthmatics—and have been since birth—it was unsettling to think something which we regularly need and usually have readily available for purchase was becoming limited.
“While I’m not sure whether it was asthmatics stockpiling in preparation or just people who thought Ventolin was the cure for COVID, the stockpiling seemed like it was done out of fear.”
Perhaps people’s reactions to corona has unsettled us so much is because it exposed how much thinner the veneer of our society actually is. At the first signs of duress, it showed a crack and suddenly some people were left without things they genuinely needed.
While the news stories on Australia’s “supermarket crisis” were relentless, in the months during the corona crisis I only saw one news story about the world’s actual hunger crisis.
The other gapping problem with panic-buying was the media coverage it received. Images of empty shelves only fuelled people’s sense insecurity, urging them to go out and buy more. While the news stories on Australia’s “supermarket crisis” were relentless, in the months during the corona crisis I only saw one news story about the world’s actual hunger crisis. In developing nations from Kenya to Colombia, a hunger emergency has been unfolding that experts expect will double the number of people facing acute hunger to 265 million by the end of this year. The coronavirus has disrupted everyone’s lives but it is poor people, and particularly large portions of poor nations, who are now facing the very real possibility of starvation. I know that ‘the kids in Africa’ argument is cliched and trivialised but it shouldn’t be. Everyone in this world should have access to enough food to live. It’s fucked up and if you don’t feel angry and upset then you should. I’m lucky enough to still have a job and live at home so I donated $20 that I haven’t spent on takeaway coffee towards Oxfam’s global hunger fund. I know that, now more than ever, not everyone has the means to do this and that money won’t wholly fix these kinds of problems but donating is a simple way to put a small amount of good back into the world.
Speaking of good, while trawling the internet during this isolation, I came across a tweet which had been making the rounds on social media. The story was from The Best Care Possible: A Physician’s Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life by Ira Byock and the short version is that a student once asked famous anthropologist Margaret Mead what she considered to be the earliest sign of civilisation. While the answer to that might have been any number of things like hunting tools, pottery or religious artefacts, Mead replied that she believed the marker of civilisation to be a healed femur. Back in the day, keeping your thigh bones in one piece was fairly important. If you broke one, you were pretty much screwed. So, if you’re seeing evidence of healed femur, Mead reasoned, it suggests that someone else stuck around to take care of their injured friend while it healed. In the animal kingdom, other animals with broken legs die. Rather than any kind of rule-of-the-jungle theory or ground-breaking advances in technology, Margaret Mead argued the first sign of humanity was actually an act of compassion.
It’s probable that in our lifetime we will face crises like this again, as well as crises of a different nature, and to overcome them we will need to work together and take care of one another. For a lot of us in Australia, we were lucky enough that the coronavirus passed with relative freedoms, and that we had healthcare workers who worked tirelessly to keep people safe. Hopefully, the good lessons of coronavirus plus the weaknesses it exposed will make us better prepared for the next challenge we face.
This interview was originally published in Edition 34 of Verse. View it in its original PDF form via ISSUU.