Beating up people who panic buy toilet paper is no more productive than the act itself, and completely ignores the pre-existing inequalities deliberately built into society, writes Darren Lewin-Hill.
As health authorities around the world diagnose mounting cases of Coronavirus, there’s a more disturbing diagnosis happening, with multiple cases emerging of a mutating ugliness in response to this globally shared threat.
Supermarket disputes over the artificial scarcity of toilet paper have been in the spotlight of media and social media attention, and they certainly show us as selfish actors in an unrestrained free market.
Such disputes are at once grotesque, and a stark refutation of the moral basis of buying power as an organising principle of any decent society. They epitomise just what it means to accept that what we deserve is everything we can grasp. That in this case we are grasping for toilet paper only colours our dystopic behaviour with farce.
Yet there is also at play a binary and crude polarisation in responses to this dismaying spectacle.
Amid official advice to throw a few extra items in our shopping trolleys, it’s not the case that buying some extra toilet rolls, or other essentials, is morally reprehensible in itself, or that a refusal to stock up at all is praiseworthy and sensible.
As one shopper had it on ABC television news, she was only buying what was basic to her needs. Yet the trolleys towering with toilet rolls are indeed hard to understand in any terms other than ignorance, selfishness, or both.
With the line between sense and selfishness not always clear, a perversity to emerge in our moral assessments has been the smugness of some commentary professing to be mystified at even the impulse to panic buy.
‘They panic-buy toilet paper, and they vote. Just sayin,’ wrote one prominent media figure on Twitter a few days ago.
It’s hard to understand this mystification, except as a function of the material comfort of the mystified. We can surely agree that panic-buying of essentials is against our common interest, as we also challenge ourselves to see such behaviours through a lens unclouded by our own advantages.
In meeting the global challenge of Coronavirus, so much will depend on our generosity, as well as a willingness to restrain our self-interest for the benefit of others.
Our collective prognosis isn’t helped by the stunted condition of social and economic structures that promoted stark inequalities before the onset of the pandemic, and are now only amplifying them after it.
Those without a home or a job, those without access to services, or who already face significant personal challenges, are hardly in a position to panic buy, and are only likely to suffer heightened vulnerability in a society that has already largely abandoned them.
We have also seen that vulnerability itself may promote transmission, as those who fear for their jobs go to work despite symptoms that may indicate they are infectious.
In the face of a precarious gig economy, of casualised labour with no or diminished entitlements, can we blame them? The obligation rests with governments to create a safety net that allows everyone to act in a manner consistent with containing the virus.
At the level of employers and individuals, the answer will not be found in a retreat into selfishness, or the reinforcement of the same structures that have seen it flourish like a choking algal bloom.
We need to support vital community services, and the nurses, ambulance workers, doctors and other health workers who are literally on the front line, unable to access even such basic equipment as the masks that protect them and allow a continuation of their crucial work in protecting us.
Our response must also be geared to an honest appreciation of need, not entitlement. Vulnerability is not heightened for those with more to lose, who expect their streamed entertainments to play without interruption through any crisis.
And as with the catastrophic bushfires of the summer, the response of governments will not be hidden beneath spin and social media campaigns. For our leaders, too, are being tested, and the gap between politically motivated claims to action and what happens on the ground will be there for all to see.
The question for all of us now is whether we believe in a decent society as the path to our collective survival.
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