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The Other News Round-Up: Panic Mechanics

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you a round-up of some of the world’s stranger occurrences. This week: panic buying.

I live in Cape Town, so it should come as no surprise that one of my recent Saturdays went something like this.

Read (another) statement reminding us that although we are racing headlong into catastrophe, it’ll be okay. Decide it’s probably still prudent to invest in some buckets and bottles, in case I have to build a potty or something. Go to the hardware store and find zero buckets, bottles or anything else. Get told by shop staff that panicked residents are buying up anything they can store water in, including bins and plastic laundry hampers. Check phone and find helpful message from Woolworths promising discount on 5-litre bottled water. Go to Woolworths and find, instead of discounted bottled water, customers breaking into mutiny over lack of bottled water and hastily implemented water rations. Go to Pick ‘n Pay and find floor staff member looking a little dazed at the shelf. Strike up conversation. He tells me he hasn’t had to unpack any water from his trolley for days. As it arrives, shoppers clean trolley for him. He’s still busy unpacking the cooldrinks that were delivered alongside, but all the water is gone. Try to drive through Newlands. Can’t. Traffic to spring backing up Main Road for around 45 minutes. Long for the days when I thought rugby traffic was bad.

Panic buying, friends! It’s not new. Human beings have been letting all the holy hells break loose in the face of coming catastrophe since time immemorial, in response to fundamental biological and social needs. Social psychologist Jaime L. Kurtz describes panic buying, even where it’s irrational (one-day storm, anyone?), as fulfilling three important functions beyond the evolutionary instinct to survive. One, we need control. Where there’s a perceived threat to life and property, it’s understandable that we control what we can, says Kurtz.

Two, as a social phenomenon, panic buying is shaped by normative pressure. “We see those nearly-bare shelves and wonder, ‘What am I missing here? What does everyone else know that I don’t?” In an unpredictable situation, we often look to other people to determine the appropriate course of action,” explains Kurtz.

And three, there’s something ritualistic about the mass rush to panic shopping that bonds us to one another during a frightening time, she says. It makes us feel less alone. You only have to listen to perfect strangers striking up conversations about impending doom, or the empty shelves themselves, to hear that one playing out. Heck, been there myself. It’s almost festive.

But panic buyers, bless them, have been active all over the globe, and the catastrophes have – shall we say – varied somewhat. My favourite recent report was of a panic buy playing out in Scotland, in response to an announcement that there would in future be less sugar in a beloved soft drink. Irn-Bru, a 117-year-old beverage made by AG Barr, will be having its recipe changed in a bid to dodge the UK’s new tax levy on sugar. And fans are not happy. According to reports, devotees have bought up to 250 cans in a frantic attempt to stock up on their “precious” drink before the original recipe is lost forever. One particularly vehement Scot, Ryan Allan, has launched an impassioned “Hands off our Irn-Bru” campaign and told the BBC: “I’ve got 24 glass bottles in my loft that will do me for emergencies.”

Another distraught Bru-lover Tweeted: “First Lucozade, now Irn-Bru. Can’t believe what I’m reading.” Weeping emoji.

Elsewhere, says ABC, reports have surfaced of panic buying of medications containing codeine, as multinational pharmaceutical companies move towards banning the use of codeine in over-the-counter medications in Australia. Then there’s the infamous sporting panic buy, which has seen sports stars bought at staggering prices (think Chelsea buying Spain’s Fernando Torres for £50m). And in the irony of ironies, recent Nigerian reports have asked citizens not to panic-buy fuel, as the panic-buying has in fact perpetuated the feared fuel shortage.

History – recent and not so recent – has also seen its share of panic purchasing. In 2011, a wave of nuclear panic, sparked by fears of leaks from the Fukushima plant, saw countries even fair distances from Japan sweeping the shelves of products that were said to guard against radiation poisoning. In Russia, sales peaked on red wine, vodka (!) and seaweed, reported the Telegraph, while in China people bought salt by the bagful, believing the iodine content would be helpful. As far away as Bulgaria, there were reported shortages of iodine tablets. “No matter how many scientists were wheeled out to reassure people that radiation levels outside Japan would not pose a threat to health,” wrote reporter Gordon Rayner, “widespread distrust of official advice meant thousands placed more faith in rumours and old wives’ tales.” China’s Ministry of Health, noted Rayner, had pointed out that an adult would need to swallow 3kg of salt in one sitting to prevent radiation poisoning. But that didn’t stop the panic buying. The price of salt shot up tenfold in some areas, and share prices in salt companies spiked.

But history also shows us that panic buying can come from a place of genuine and sustained terror. According to Silenced Scream: A Visual History of the 1989 Tiananmen Protests, China was “staggering under the burden of runaway inflation” by the late 1980s, with the aftermath of prices that had been kept artificially low for too long. By the time the two-tiered price system kicked in that kept some prices low and allowed others to fluctuate, well-connected speculators could buy up cheap goods and re-sell them at inflated prices. This – in combination with a chronic shortage of goods – resulted in outrageous inflation rates and widespread panic buying, not of one specific product, but several essential items.

Similarly, post-WWI, industrial production was at less than a third of what it had been prior to the war, agricultural yields were half of what they were in 1913, and living standards in Hungary were at 40% lower than before the war. Food shortages were severe and inflation more so. In Austria, the krone was in freefall, which, according to A Short History of the Weimar Republic, led to widespread panic buying and food hoarding. Only strict austerity measures, international bailouts and a long, traumatic road to economic recovery led citizens back to normality.

So while we may laugh at ourselves a little, while we may recognise that we are a little hysterical, and indulging in a little trauma bonding, we should also keep our eyes open. Panic buying is a survival mechanism, stemming from our instinct to survive, and we know running out of water means big trouble. If we see chaos break out around us – and in ourselves – we can take a moment for a rueful smile. But we should also be patient with ourselves, the situation, and with each other. DM


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