Panic buying or surviving in a dog-eat-dog system?

March 25, 2020
Credit: RatbagMedia

Panic buying is a normal reaction to the federal government instructing us to stock up in the COVID-19 crisis in case we need to self-isolate for 14 days.

People are stocking up for two weeks, but supermarket chains and their suppliers only stock a few days’ supply. The corporate chains have not made the adjustments for COVID-19 from their just-in-time model, which saves spending on warehouse storage, warehouse workers and the accompanying equipment. Supermarkets cannot, at short notice, meet the surge in demand.

Panic buying or, more accurately, stocking up, also reflects the widespread lack of confidence in the government stepping in for them if they have to self-isolate and have no one to whom they can turn.

Why would anyone have confidence in the government following its negligent response to the worst bushfires in Australia’s history? The government’s ineptitude was highlighted again when it was so slow to do anything more after declaring the initial travel ban. Like US President Donald Trump, it thought the ban itself would stop the virus spreading.

While Canberra has not shown the same negligence as the White House — at least the former realised that COVID-19 was a serious health risk — it is rationing COVID-19 test kits. Those displaying all the symptoms, but who have not had contact with someone diagnosed with the virus or who has recently travelled overseas, have been denied a test.

This means that many people with COVID-19 are likely to be unknowingly infecting others. Yet, the government has been saying that there are plenty of test kits.

What do you expect people to do if you tell them that they have to self-isolate for 14 days and not provide a means for them to access food and basic household supplies?

Capitalism promotes a dog-eat-dog approach and people are responding to this crisis in the only way they can: by stocking up.

It may well not be the case that those with a full supermarket trolley are hoarding: they may be buying for their large family or for their neighbourhood. It may be a way of reducing their use of their vehicle, or to simply save time and stress.

The fact is, relying on privately-owned supermarkets, currently making super-profits, to distribute food and essential household sanitary products is not working. While they have been lent on to introduce limits on some goods and open at special times for vulnerable groups, this is not working either. The first morning Woolworths introduced such a system, most of the elderly who turned up looking for toilet paper left with none.

In any case, not all elderly people can get to a supermarket at 7am. Those with disabilities have told me that that their carers do not arrive until 9am. Some carers have even been prevented from entering the supermarkets with the person they are caring for. Some elderly people and those with disabilities do not have access to a health care card, but still need extra help.

While supermarkets have introduced limits on some items, such blanket rules can also be inequitable. How can an extended family survive on the same  supplies as a couple? No wonder people are traipsing from supermarket to supermarket. In Melbourne, some people have hired mini-buses to travel to regional towns to find supplies. It is survival of the fittest.

Those on very low incomes including those on the new JobSeeker Payment, a pension or the minimum wage, and part-time and casual workers do not generally have enough savings to be in a position to stock up. They would not have the funds to drive around a dozen or more supermarkets looking for essential items either.

During this COVID-19 emergency, the two big supermarket chains have stopped home deliveries. Some people have had to wait a week to receive their order. This has also added to people’s sense of insecurity.

If the government really wanted to stop panic buying, it would force factories and supermarkets to increase stock so people could feel at ease over two weeks of self-isolation. It could organise its own supply chain of necessities and introduce a fair rationing and distribution system.

Its repeated reprimand about “panic buying” amounts to yet more scapegoating of ordinary people who are trying to survive in a profits-first system that cannot respond to a crisis in an equitable and organised way.

It suits capitalist governments to promote the idea that working-class people cannot be trusted. Blaming people for panic buying is like blaming job seekers for not having a job. But this lie was well and truly exposed when 36,000 people applied for the 5000 casual jobs Coles announced last week.

Many local communities are starting up mutual aid groups on social media, pointing to a way to get through this period. Developing collective solutions, as we physically distance from each other, will help set us up for the struggles ahead to keep some of the COVID-19 crumbs the government has been forced to grant.

[Sue Bolton is a Socialist Alliance councillor in the City of Moreland in Victoria.]

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