COVID-19 panic buying hits the vulnerable

Meat section of a Woolworth's store in Darwin. Photo: Peter Robson

I was originally going to write on the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability. But, as the country readies for a COVID-19 lockdown, with the economy on the brink of a recession and supermarket shelves stripped bare, I have changed my angle.

Health authorities have deemed the elderly and the chronically ill or disabled to be the most vulnerable to COVID-19. They have urged people to take extra care when interacting with these members of society.

But, unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is unleashing some very anti-social behaviour.

An increase in panic buying has led to unprecedented and alarming behaviour by some shoppers. Fights are breaking out in supermarket aisles and retailers are copping abuse from angry and distressed customers.

Last week, a woman with multiple sclerosis told the ABC’s 7.30 about her experience trying to navigate shopping aisles as people pushed and shoved past her. This is not an uncommon story.

Video has emerged on social media of women fighting over toilet paper. A man was arrested amid panic buying and a Sydney supermarket brawl. In Melbourne, a man was arrested for stabbing a Woolworths employee.

Some stores, such as Coles and Woolworths, have now designated an exclusive hour for elderly and disabled persons holding a valid government concession card to do their shopping. However, even between 7 and 8am, some stores have become over-crowded, with people still buying in excess and pensioner cards not always being checked by security.

Beyond the crowding and bad behaviour, panic buying is unfairly disadvantaging vulnerable people. Elderly and disabled people who are unable to get to the shops at the crack of dawn, or do not have the capacity to leave the house at all, are missing out on vital supplies. Vulnerable people are being left behind. At a time when the nation should be supporting and helping the most vulnerable, we are being pushed aside.

I can’t imagine what kind of attitude some people have in “normal” times. Actually, I can: the royal commission has given us a window into that.

We have heard about the abuse and neglect directed toward disabled people in group homes. We know the horror stories of disabled people — especially intellectually disabled people — who have not survived the healthcare system because of discrimination.

If all this does not send a clear message about how society has to drastically adjust its attitudes and behaviour towards each other and especially vulnerable people, such as the disabled, I don’t know what will.

[Claudia Forsberg is a second year journalism student, an activist and publishes the blog .]