HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: On pandemics, public disorder & panic buying


In 2017 Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro unveiled a new plan to solve the food shortage problem that many of the country’s 30 million citizens had been subject to for several years. His strategy? Plan Conejo, or ‘Plan Rabbit’.

Maduro and his ministers launched a campaign to convince Venezuelans to eat rabbits, saying that it made for an excellent source of protein and could feed a large number of people. This was the government solution to the country’s persistent problem of irregular or no access to red meat and chicken. The publicity campaign included messaging trying to convince citizens that a bunny is not a cute pet; it’s two and a half kilos of meat.

Venezuela’s food shortages are ongoing, and a result of the president’s feud against “imperialists” – especially his archenemy Donald Trump.

Maduro’s self-proclaimed economic war resulted in sanctions and it’s the people of the South American country who continue to pay the price of those imposed sanctions. Other factors that make accessibility to food difficult in the country are general shortages of basic goods, bad situation management, a severe drop in the country’s oil income and an unnecessary peak in stockpiling and hoarding, attributed to the phenomenon we (and the rest of the world) are experiencing right now due to COVID-19: panic-buying.

This week South African grocery stores have seen their shelves more bare than a baby’s bottom, with several news outlets sharing pictures and videos of frantic buyers filling trolleys with literally anything they can get their hands on. One viral picture portrayed a man lugging around an industrial size trolley full of Xerox paper in Makro.

But more than the ridiculous items some shoppers opted for, what becomes immediately clear in this entire spectacle is that lower-income citizens are significantly absent from the images. And that is because, simply put, panic buying is a privilege. It is an advantage reserved for the middle-class in South Africa because lower-income workers simply cannot afford to buy thousands of toilet rolls at a time on a regular day when there is no pandemic.

The twisted irony, of course, is that these same workers are substantially more likely to take leave that is unpaid, and more likely to face the prospect of an unpaid quarantine - resulting in less, and less, and less to buy with, but not necessarily less to buy because the stores that serve those communities are fully stocked and ready to cater to their communities at this time.

So, middle-class virtue signallers standing in a queue tweeting about the empty shelf at Woolies and how stockpilers are stealing food from the mouths of poverty-stricken babes are actually in complete darkness about the vehicle of buying oiling its wheels. Middle-class hoarders are not robbing lower-income households; they are in fact robbing only you – another middle-class shopper.

Panic buying is an unnecessary and irrational act. We are not Venezuela. We have no economic war to wage. All our supply chains remain in order. There will be no boiling of bunnies. But regardless, here we are, panicking. And it’s not the first time.

Psychologist David DeSteno, in an editorial for the New York Times, says that what a lot of panic buyers are suffering from is a lack of knowledge and “miscalibrated information”. It’s true for New Yorkers and it can be applied here.

We received news about COVID-19, we’re constantly consuming information about the virus’s toll on other parts of the world and because we’re so highly strung, we become more and more susceptible to problematic claims and fearful attitudes which reinforce the panic and amp up the cycle of irrational behaviour.

The non-stop cycle of information puts us in a state of hyper vigilance that makes that information self-perpetuating. Dorothy Frizelle, a consultant clinical health psychologist in the UK, says: “People notice more, and hear more, and read more, and interpret that in a threatening way.” In other words, to put it plainly, if you perceive that your ability to forage for food in a supermarket is threatened because you are constantly confronted by the news of people who are irrationally stockpiling, then you will perpetuate this same behaviour and ultimately, the stores will be empty in a way they never should have been.

COVID-19 is unpredictable in the sense that South Africa has never faced this kind of state of disaster before - at least not in my lifetime. We have never been confronted with the idea of being made to distance ourselves from others, leave our houses as little as possible, lose our jobs or our incomes and in some cases, our homes, because there is what is effectively an invisible enemy out there waiting to attack.

There is nothing predictable about this situation. When we can’t predict something, we can’t really control it, so we try to control what we can. In the case of the middle-class, the easiest way to control their survival is to have the opportunity to ensure it by hoarding goods - the most unusual of behaviours and something we’re going to make fun of the same way we made fun of the dooms-day preppers of the 90s.

But Frizelle explains that because human beings are severely ill-equipped to deal with uncertainty, this silly behaviour is expected, “especially when the threat is so uncertain and potentially far-reaching”.

Many of us will remember the great stockpile of the 90s. The future was uncertain, people worried whether the new government could be trusted, many South Africans packed up and left the country and some, granted, returned after the April 27-28 election. I’m not sure if they brought their canned goods back with them, but they did return.

Those who remained stood armed with inventories that contained anything from food and water to candles and, in some cases, guns and ammunition. Stockpiling is a symptom of the fear of public disorder. Back then the anticipation of public disorder was born out the fear of the dawn of democracy at a time of civil unrest and confusion and a weariness of the old government being able to make trustworthy decisions.

If you can afford to satiate your fear with retail therapy, then you will. Is it right? No. Does it happen? Yes. Is it rational? Absolutely not.

Maybe the great stockpiling silliness of 2020 can be explained thus: The majority of our country really knows how to survive because they have faced economic threat before and some do it every day, while the middle-class and above strangely think that survival lies in having enough toilet paper and tinned tuna. Or maybe in a couple of years, I will have to eat my words, along with my own foot and a boiled rabbit.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.