My mum has been sending me daily messages from Australia, asking if I had stocked up yet. She’s sent me lists of items to keep on hand, and videos of hysterical shoppers getting close to all-out brawls in supermarket aisles over toilet paper.
She has seen supermarkets get steadily emptier, and runs leaving shelves normally full of basic items such as rice and paper-towel bare for two weeks now. I had largely disregarded her advice—there’s no way supply chains will be interrupted, and the US has been calm so far.
This was, until Sunday, when I heard that there are police stationed at fuel stations in DC as a measure “to keep the peace.” Going to the store, I began to notice how busy it was. People were cutting one another off to get to aisels (hopefully) full of rice, pasta, and yes, toilet paper.
You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.
While I don’t believe supply chains will be interrupted, hearing prominent politicians and journalists thunder over the radio that, “if you’re not doing something to prepare, you’re doing something wrong” is a bit worrying. This, obviously won’t help anyone. If people panic and begin stockpiling then those that don’t stockpile may very well leave the store empty handed.
While I pity the poor person, who, on their last role goes for their weekly shop to find that toilet paper has completely vanished, I also find the mental image of hoarders with piles of mint-in-pack TP piled up to the ceiling absolutely hilarilous. So, much to my mother’s relief, I bought a few extra days’ worth of food amidst a grocery store backdrop of stirring panic.
We seem to assume that the human race is so evolved, that we’re so civilized now compared to our cave-dwelling forebearers. Until there’s something like a natural disaster or pandemic to start frenzied hoarding and panic.
I wonder what will happen to food pantries: are (or will) we, in our panic, decide to start taking from public food pantries? Certainly people will donate less to these facilities, which are intended to serve those who are homeless, impoverished, or facing food insecurity. If we see canned goods disappear from shelves, will we compromise our values and start raiding their canned goods and non-perishables?
These preparations, so out of the ordinary, are more reminiscent of war-times than the modern prosperity we’ve come to enjoy.
My grandmother from Germany remembers the war, and grew up poor. She laughed at our concern about going on holiday with a few other octogenarians for ten days. Of course she’ll still go! Contrast that with my mother who, having been through constant shortages on various goods (including toilet paper) during her childhood in Zimbabwe, is now hiding tinned tomatoes around the house.
My grandmother is not the only fearless person about. A corona-patient in Kentucky has steadfastly refused to self-isolate, under 24-hour guard. This is not the first instance of someone refusing what is essentially house-arrest: a few days ago a father from Missouri reportedly disregarded a home quarantine request in order to attend a father-daughter dance at a nearby hotel. The consequent public outlash on social media, and reports of a police patrol to protect the family in their home following the incident seem to indicate that we are not particularly civilized.
The ‘Do Something-or-die’ Approach
It would be political suicide to do nothing, even when in instances when that is the best option. Invoking a ‘state of emergency’ to give legal impetus to quarantine ‘free spirits’ may help prevent an immediate destruction of your political career, but it makes things worse in the long-run.
Now also seems to be a good excuse for socialist tendencies to crawl out of the woodwork. Billions in emergency funds are being released, there will probably be millions in lawsuits, and politicians are using the emotional heat around Covid-19 to promote ideologically-based initiatives such as mass bail-outs and nationalization of companies.
Some elected representatives, such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, are calling for the nationalization of ‘critical private companies’ in order to keep them running 24/7. Anyone who’s had to deal with any government service, from DVS and the Social Security Administration to getting operating approval for their businesses will probably shudder at the thought. Excluding services such as law enforcement, I struggle to think of a government department that operates outside of the hours of 9-5 Monday-Friday.
While shutting things down seems logical – at least superficially – forcibly closing restaurants, schools and borders would force the very thing the government does not want: large crowds of people in a confined area – such as supermarkets or airports.
Arguably, the best thing we could do (for those who are healthy and unconcerned) both for our health and the sake of the economy, would be to continue our lives as normal. If we eat at (or get takeaway from) restaurants and cafes, continue to let children play with friends, and cut back on visiting elderly parents, we – and our economy – will come out stronger for it.
I’m curious to see the government try implement price controls on grocery items, although realistically this a) wouldn’t work and would eventually lead to rationing if supply chains really are interrupted, and b) we might hear de Blasio call for nationalization of grocery stores. At that point I think we can truly say we’ve lost our ‘free’ institutions.
Stuck in the Middle
If travel restrictions and home-quarantine is being enacted out of compassion for our neighbours, then there also exist compassionate reasons against such restrictive measures.
There are plenty of poor travellers, stranded either indefinitely in a foreign country half-way home, or seeking a third country to reside in for two week ‘quarantine’ periods in the hopes that this country won’t also be added to the ban.
Those about to move abroad to start work may wonder how long their job will be waiting for them. Even more tragically, those with vulnerable family members face a significant problem: what if their loved-one becomes seriously ill (with corona or something else) and you can’t make it to them for their last few days of life?
Corona: Undermining effective future responses to pandemics
So far, the numbers of deaths/infections are pretty good: the virus isn’t causing perfectly healthy people to drop dead, serious cases remain relatively low and the virus is primarily affecting those who are frail or have underlying health conditions. The resultant frustration felt by those who lose their incomes, who are forced to cancel conferences and events, shutter their businesses or stay home from school may undermine future efforts to address pandemics.
If we believe we are civilized, we must question why we need to ‘go medieval’. Is it simply to alleviate public fears? Supermarket shelves seem to indicate that it is having the opposite effect. Indeed, it could have disastrous consequences down the road: an over-reaction to contagious diseases which are later perceived as not-so-serious will undermine future efforts at containment.
One day we may have an outbreak of highly contagious disease X which kills every person it comes into contact with on the 60th day of being infected. If that happens we may initially approach the situation more hesitantly than we should by refusing to shut things down or quarantine because, “don’t you remember the over-reaction to Covid-19?”
Critically, information remains opaque, hysteria is growing exponentially, but deaths are not (at least for present). Ultimately, if the data doesn’t match the rhetoric, government actions may be a present embodiment of the story of the boy who cried wolf.
This article was originally published as a chapter in “Coronavirus and Economic Crisis” published by the American Institute for Economic Research.