Thousands of rolls of toilet paper, gas masks made out of buckets, and Lord Farquaad-esque speeches: Britain in a crisis.
Somehow, this is essentially the official advice on dealing with coronavirus individually. Shockingly, nearly everyone has promptly ignored it and started to panic. From panic buying enough toilet rolls to TP a mansion to the frankly absurd alternatives people are using to create face masks, the words “headless” and “chicken” seem to be springing to mind. Naturally, people are scared and to effectively self-isolate you do need a stock of some essentials in order to avoid public spaces. However, the domino effect of the decisions people are making in regards to panic buying are putting others at risk.
As I’m sure everyone and their dog knows by now, toilet paper stocks are running extremely low and many shops have no supplies of other essentials to sell. Now, the upside to all this is that if you have shares in Unilever or any of the companies it owns you will be rolling in it once this year’s dividends get paid out. The downsides are that you are now either stuck without hygiene essentials, or rapidly running out of storage space for the excessive number of loo rolls or bottles of hand sanitizer you just bought, while also being directly responsible for the misery of the people with the first problem. Those with high levels of risk – the elderly especially – are particularly screwed over by shortages of stock since many physically cannot buy in bulk. Some (but not all) stores are imposing limits to ensure more people have access to products, but this response is not being coordinated. Schemes such as Iceland’s earlier opening times specifically for older people who cannot compete in a bathroom-aisle melee are being rolled out on an opt-in basis rather than being universal to all branches.
Panic has also manifested in the mass buying of face masks, or where these are not available, putting a plastic Tesco bag on your head. (Google this the pictures are hilarious) This seems partially motivated by the PM’s Lord Farquaad-esque speech approach towards the death rate of Coronavirus – you know the meme I’m referencing – and partially by a complete lack of understanding of how such masks work. To spell it out, a gas mask, designed to filter chemicals out of the air, will not filter out the virus, as this is not what it is designed to do. Face masks do not guarantee protection anyway – it’s more about trying to minimise your own contribution to spreading the virus and protect you from infecting others with your dirty, Covid-19 carrying spit and sneezes.
As of yet, no clear guidance or attempt to mitigate the impact of panic buying or hoarding has been given by the UK government. The attitude of those who should be making policy to minimise the effects of Covid-19 seems to be an dangerous mixture of “deal with it yourself” and so-called Blitz spirit. Johnson seems to have a fetish for mentioning Winston Churchill with his “wartime government” rubbish. Conveniently, the hands-on, policy-heavy, economically regulated interventionist parts of this mythologised wartime government seem to have been forgotten along the way. The PM is clearly hoping everything will sort itself out without too much damage to the economy, only without any of the concrete steps other governments are taking to achieve this goal. Italy and France are on lockdown, with enforced quarantine and, in the former, a government freeze on rent payments and household bills to ease the pain of lost income. We have a promised loan to businesses in trouble and a three-month mortgage holiday for “people who need help.”
Internationally speaking, optimistic economists say we are on the verge of a recession the likes of which will make 2008 look like a minor wobble. Stock markets are reporting record-breaking losses almost daily, with Wall Street dropping 7% in value before closing trading early on 9 March alone. London isn’t doing any better and to be honest it’s this that scares me the most. The virus itself will not cause the apocalypse. The economic shutdown that follows it? Well, if you were struggling before I expect it will feel pretty apocalyptic. Take solace in the fact that if currency collapses it will most likely be replaced by a loo roll-based barter system, so the wealth inequality we all know and love will carry over into the new age. It will be quite interesting for economics students to experience the re-evolution of finance, though for neo-liberals I imagine a few illusions about the fairness of any “invisible hand of the markets” approach will be shattered – which should be, if not particularly enjoyable, at least grimly satisfying to watch. That is my main hope really, that out of all the fear and uncertainty and panic, some calls for the redressing of societal problems will be answered. I don’t ask for much, maybe just slightly lower rent and slightly more secure employment with a better-regulated economy, but I’m just a student, what do I know?