Grocery shopping in the time of corona
ECONOMYNEXT – Two conflicting narratives emerged out of the apocalyptic grocery shopping spree this morning: One was of discipline and orderliness, with mile-long queues of shoppers patiently awaiting their turn at the supermarket, and the other was a horror story (though ironically less dystopian) that spat in the face of those time-honoured petite bourgeoisie values.
As the COVID-19 curfew was temporarily lifted at 6am today – with a window of eight hours at first, then hurriedly revised to six hours, and then revised again to eight hours – people lined up in their hundreds outside their local supermarket hoping to restock their homes of various essentials.
Social media was replete with pictures of long lines of people that in some cases extended to well over a kilometre. Shoppers were seen standing the government-recommended one metre apart from each other, with nearly everyone covering their face with a facemask or handkerchief. One aerial shot of a Keells supermarket showed a line of shoppers snaking around the building’s premises several times over, an image that wouldn’t be out of place in an illustrated Aldous Huxley novel.
A vast majority of consumers appeared to have spent four to six hours in the queues, with little or no shade from the unforgiving sun. A few voiced their frustration online, while others lauded what they called an atypical adherence to order. Social media being what it is, stories that elicit the strongest emotion – whether positive or negative – went viral, while the more nuanced accounts went largely unnoticed.
Most agreed, however, that it was an experience they would not be in a hurry to relive.
“It was a long and tiring wait under the harsh sunlight (I forgot my umbrella) as only ten people could enter the supermarket at a time. People were tense and we were all exhausted by the time it was our turn, which was around 12 noon,” Mignonne P. Leahy (48), a consumer in Maharagama told EconomyNext.
She also spoke of an incident in which a man in a car (with a ‘University of Tasmania’ bumper sticker) had pulled up and demanded entry.
“He took ages to come out and the security guards had to manhandle him out. The crowd was tense and I thought a fight would break out but luckily the situation was handled,” she said.
It wasn’t all bad, however. For every infuriating story of an over-privileged person throwing their weight around, there was an uplifting story of volunteers distributing free facemasks and hand-sanitizer among those waiting in line. There were also stories of residents laying out plastic chairs for exhausted shoppers for a much needed respite.
EconomyNext Editor Arjuna Ranawana said: “I left home about four minutes to 6am and when I got to the Laugfs supermarket at 6 there were already more than a hundred people in the queue. Everyone was practising social distancing and when the supermarket opened they were well behaved.”
There were, however, some complaints that all pretence of social-distancing was dropped the second shoppers were let in. While some supermarkets had managed the entire process sufficiently well under the circumstances, others had failed spectacularly, according to different accounts. However, the consensus seemed to be that, barring a few exceptions, the end-of-the-world shopping experience at the supermarket chains – though far from ideal – was relatively well-managed and largely free of incident.
It was an entirely different story at the not so super markets, however.
Health Services Director General Dr Anil Jasinghe said: “In the districts where the curfew was lifted we saw the public obeying our directives to practise social distancing. This was a very positive sign and we are grateful for that. However, there were other places where such social distancing did not take place and that is why we are compelled to enforce an indefinite curfew.”
News footage showed hundreds of consumers huddled close together in Narahenpita, Pettah, Dambulla and other parts of the country, struggling to purchase enough vegetables, rice and other essentials to last them the remainder of the curfew.
Different queues were seen for different food items such as rice, coconut, spices, milk powder, etc, forcing shoppers to switch from queue to queue, contributing to the pandamonium through no fault of their own. Contrary to popular upper-middle class sentiment, it was clearly not an issue of discipline or level of education, as many of the consumers had come with their faces covered.
Super or otherwise, massive congestion at shopping centres was inevitable and left some wondering whether imposing a curfew to prevent the COVID-19 outbreak might prove counterproductive. Former JVP parliamentarian Bimal Rathnayake took to Facebook earlier today to suggest an alternative – to allow pharmacies and grocery stores that sell drugs and essential food items to stay open during the curfew hours and to issue a one-time-only purchase license to consumers to buy those goods. He also suggested linking the widespread network of ‘choon paan’ tuk-tuks (threewheelers that sell baked goods) to these pharmacies, stores and supermarkets to facilitate the process.
It is still too early to tell whether today’s experiment was a success or a failure. Whether it proved effective in minimising the spread of the novel coronavirus while keeping the population fed or whether it made things irrevocably worse remains to be seen. (Colombo/Mar24/2020)
Kithmina Hewage- Institute of Policy Studies