23 March 2020

More than a lecture needed to stop the fear and panic in the shopping aisles

| Ian Bushnell
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Empty shelves at Weston

Cleaned out: Now it’s meat. The butcher shop at Cooleman Court in Weston on Saturday morning. Photos: Ian Bushnell.

Well, the PM’s lecture on hoarding and panic buying went down well.

Queues at supermarkets and even the Fyshwick markets, the buying extending to perishables and regional supermarkets banning outsiders from the aisles – that was the response in the Canberra region, and everywhere else.

If anything the rush on shopping centres and even the Fyshwick markets gathered apace.

Such is the loss of respect for the office and distrust in our leaders that the past decade of revolving Prime Ministers, the culture and climate wars, and divisive wedge politics has spawned.

Now, when we are in a crisis too immediate to ignore, no one is listening to the Prime Minister’s disappointed dad act.

Do people realise what comes next if they do not heed Mr Morrison’s plea?

The ACT’s pro-market Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, wasn’t going there when asked about whether there was a potential big stick in the back pocket if the madness continues.

“I guess the good news is that those people probably have several years’ supply of these products, and won’t need to go to the supermarket again for those products for some time,” he said.

“We will reach the point when people run out of storage space in their homes.”

Woolworths Weston

No joy at the toilet paper aisle in Woolworths Weston about 11:00 am on Saturday (21 March).

He assured journalists that the government would keep a close eye on the situation, while endorsing the PM’s comments.

Later in the week he warned profiteers they would face the wrath of the ACCC.

“I have no doubt they will seek to make an example of any business that sought to profiteer from the national emergency,” he said.

Don’t bet on it, though.

He still insisted supply chains were being ratcheted up and shelves would again be full in coming weeks.

“Supply lines are gearing up and we will see more supplies on supermarket shelves in coming weeks,” he said.

He even said factories were converting to manufacturing some of the goods in demand, such as a distillery in Victoria moving to make hand sanitiser.

But already we have had supermarkets calling in private security, police patrolling the aisles, although they tend to disappear when a crime is reported, and buying limits imposed across a growing range of products.

Then there is the inevitable price gouging for items such as hand sanitiser to even vegetables – a cauliflower was reportedly going at $20 a head at the Fyshwick markets.

Plea for civility

A notice warning customers at the empty toilet roll aisle at Woolworths Weston on Saturday morning.

Meat, especially beef mince, is being ripped off the refrigerator shelves, to make the bolognaise to go with the pasta, no doubt.

Even the egg stands are being cleaned out. Are people rediscovering baking big time?

The price hikes may be morally dubious, but there’s nothing illegal about that, according to the laws of supply and demand.

Yet.

Do we just have to wait until this hysteria, or rational precautionary behaviour, call it what you will, runs out of steam, like the virus, or will the normal market rules of supply and demand have to be suspended, real rationing introduced and more than just blue uniforms appear at the shops?

How soon before there is more than just a fracas and a real riot erupts, perhaps even causing injury or worse?

In the US the National Guard has been called out in some cities to keep order.

Some might say, ”not here, this is Australia, we’re not like that”. Maybe in the past, but decades of neo-liberal economic policies that have encouraged individualism and personal profit have achieved what the purveyors wanted – a change in our culture to make us more competitive, self-driven, and basically greedy.

shelves

The empty Woden Woolworths shelves on Saturday afternoon.

The poor, the disabled, those without cars to rove the city hunting and gathering are being left behind in the scramble to fortify the home and not be left out.

Not to mention medicines and medical supplies at pharmacies.

The bushfires brought us together at a terrible cost. This crisis is driving us apart.

Mr Morrison, still smarting from the scorching he suffered over his Hawaii holiday and tardy response to the bushfires, has been keen to stay ahead of the curve, but it seems he overestimated our behaviour and underestimated our ability to keep track of what was occurring in other countries.

Not factoring in the fear and panic the virus has created appears to be a gap in the overall coronavirus response, and unless it subsides the PM will have to do more than finger wagging.

And maybe something un-Australian.

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HiddenDragon7:29 pm 23 Mar 20

“Stockpiling and price gouging were a breach of the implicit norms of home front life, namely that the nation should suffer together. As a crime black marketing was more difficult because every demographic of the city was represented; from the working-man’s pubs in the C.B.D which never appeared to run out of beer, and whose busiest hours appeared to be well after six o’clock closing, to the cheerful suburban grocer who kept something extra under the counter for his best customers. ”

That’s from a History Honours thesis entitled ‘Profits Over Patriotism: Black Market Crime in World War II Sydney’ which turned up in the first (of many) pages of results when I searched for info about black market activities in Australia in the Second World War –

https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/handle/2123/7985/Blum_T_Profits Before Patriotism.pdf

So with the rose-coloured specs removed, we probably need to acknowledge that what’s been going on here is much more about human nature than it is about passing economic and political theories.

Some of the panic and confusion might be avoided if our leaders – of all political persuasions – could avoid efforts like we had yesterday, with leaks from late morning, dramatic press conferences, absence of crucial details (to be released over a couple of days after someone worked out what was actually going to happen), and then a collective walkback in the later evening.

Without necessarily following the same sequence, a system which lets people know what might be coming, and what the triggers would be, along the lines of the NZ Alert Levels, might be better than the veiled threats which Australians are getting from their leaders –

https://covid19.govt.nz/government-actions/covid-19-alert-system/

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