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  • Writer's pictureMark Tamhane

I’m surrounded by panic buyers, and I don’t blame them

“Stop hoarding. I can't be more blunt about it. Stop it. It's not sensible, it's not helpful and I've got to say it's been one of the most disappointing things I've seen in Australian behaviour in response to this crisis.” 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison couldn’t have been more clear, when he angrily berated people who’ve stripped supermarket shelves bare.

“Stupidity”, is how Agriculture Minister David Littleproud described it on the ABC’s News Breakfast program, declaring that - at least when it comes to food - we produce enough to feed three times our population.

In an interview on 7:30, Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci urged people to just buy what they needed in the short term, insisting there was no shortage of food and household items in Australia. In his parlance, there was not a “supply” problem, but rather what he termed “a demand surge” issue.  

There’s been plenty written about the psychology of why we’ve seen such extraordinary scenes on our television screens and social media feeds; videos of brawls and screaming matches over packs of toilet paper and hand sanitiser and clearly stressed supermarket staff trying to restore order.

But where I live, you don’t need to read long articles with lots of quotes by behavioural experts to realise why there are genuine fears that food and essentials may run out and that the pronouncements of governments and corporate giants that everything is hunky-dory should be viewed with suspicion.

I live in a part of Melbourne’s northern suburbs that was once part of a farm owned by the pioneering Victorian businessman and politician, John Pascoe Fawkner.

Largely settled by European and Middle Eastern migrants, the spacious post-war homes on quarter-acre blocks are slowly being demolished to make way for townhouses and apartments.

Nevertheless, there are still a few old houses with front and back yards full of olive, almond and apricot trees, grape vines, and tomato and zucchini plants, lovingly tended by ageing Italian, Greek and Maltese immigrants.  They take great pride in being able to grow some of their own food, and even make their own wine and grappa.

The people around me know all about food shortages, job insecurity, poverty and hardship, having grown up in countries with rationing, collapsing economies, military coups, civil wars, chaotic and incompetent governments, or, as has been the case in Lebanon until recently, no government at all.

The television news for them isn’t a nightly appointment with Tamara Oduyn on the ABC, Peter Mitchell on Seven or the Nine Network’s Alicia Loxley.  It’s satellite news in their mother tongues, direct from Rome, Athens, Beirut, Belgrade, Damascus or Tehran. And what they see about the way the coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in those places scares the pants off them.

Job insecurity and economic dislocation here in Australia isn’t new to them either. Many of the older ones used to work in factories like the now defunct Ford plant at nearby Broadmeadows or in the textile, clothing or footwear sector, now pretty much entirely outsourced to China.

While most of that cohort are well and truly past retirement age, many of their children and grandchildren born in Australia - and who often don’t live far away - are now making ends meet with short-term contracts, sporadic building jobs, and increasingly precarious work - like being baggage handlers at nearby Melbourne airport - and we know how the coronavirus crisis is decimating the aviation sector.  The ones doing well for themselves are property developers with flashy leased cars and huge mortgages, but who knows what will happen to the housing sector if Australia goes into recession.

Poor health is also rife. Even before coronavirus, many of our elderly neighbours rarely ventured out. Their children and grandchildren do their shopping and bring around groceries. As uncertainty about coronavirus grows, they’ve been dropping off more and fuller bags. 

I usually go shopping a couple of times a week at my local Aldi, so it was interesting to see how panic buying progressed.  First it was toilet paper, sparked by a social media frenzy which apparently originated in China. Then it was pasta, tinned goods, long-life milk and nappies. Flour went next - probably because many of the local Lebanese bakeries and Italian pizza shops were having trouble sourcing trade supplies. The freezer cabinets were then cleaned out.  And then it moved to meat, chicken and fresh food. It was only when the shelves were pretty much bare that the staff put up signs imposing limits on the numbers of items you could buy. It was way too late by then. The horse had already bolted.

The people in my community are very unlikely to be the entrepreneurial opportunists buying up toilet paper or hand sanitiser in bulk to sell it at a profit on ebay. They’re picking up extra items for themselves, a couple of rolls for a house-bound Nonna, Yaya or Teta and a couple more for Uncle Nino the diabetic or Abu Yousef with his lung condition.

Moves by the supermarket chains, working with local, state and the federal government to ease supply chain blockages - like lifting restrictions on trucks being able to deliver supplies to restock stores at night - are welcome. Better late than never.  But if you visit supermarkets regularly like I do, it’s been clear for weeks that something was wrong - very, very wrong.

At a large food store in Melbourne’s north, the signs declared you could only buy one bakery item each transaction. That’s one loaf of bread, which is almost laughable in our hungry household of 5. But maybe it’s a good reminder.

It’s been 70 years since rationing was formally ended in Australia, well after the end of the Second World War.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s no excuse for fights in the supermarket or pushing elderly people out of the way to get to the last packet of toilet paper first.

But maybe we need to get used to the fact that as a country of migrants, for many in our community, having access to basic goods 24/7 every day of the year is the exception rather than the rule.

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