Deep down, everyone embarking on a panicked shopping spree harboured no illusion about the time and place they inhabit. They simply understood that, in a society where nobody cares about the needs of others, their security is their own concern.
by Raisa Galea
Collage by the IotL Magazine
Tuesday, February 25 unexpectedly brought memories from a different era and place—my early childhood in post-Soviet Russia. Images of empty supermarket shelves and long queues that were making the rounds on Maltese national and social media—widely mocked by the younger Maltese—looked strangely familiar (and not incomprehensible) to me.
Decades separate the empty shelves from my childhood and the shelves cleared in panic over a rumoured supply shortage due to a Coronavirus outbreak in Italy. Still, there are a few striking similarities between them. Both cases reveal our fear of an uncertain future and of having nobody to rely on for help during hard times.
Memories of Past Deprivation and Insecurity about the Future
Following the USSR collapse, life in Russia in the early ‘90s was about struggling with total shortage of goods and rapid inflation. Free enterprise came to replace the fixed prices intrinsic to Soviet planned economy. Anxiety and uncertainty about the future were, perhaps, the signature sentiments of the decade. While the political elites were busy disputing spheres of influence, ordinary citizens spent hours queuing for such basic products as fish, meat, butter, vegetable oil and even bread.
Almost every afternoon, my grandmother and I got absorbed by at least one queue, sometimes two, running from one store to another. At times, we queued in vain: products would finish before our turn, leaving us empty-handed, rewarded only by a portion of gossip from queue companions.
Oftentimes, the queues were a response to rumours of upcoming shortages. It only took a brief mention of a shop allegedly running out of sugar or flour, and a few moments later, grandma and I were already rushing towards a nearby food kiosk, joining hundreds of others willing to stock up in the face of approaching calamity.
The many hours of queueing up for food taught me more lessons than school ever did. I could witness how some of my entrepreneurial compatriots grew immensely rich by capitalising on others’ insecurities and fears.
The many hours of queuing up for food taught me more lessons than school ever did. I could witness how some of my entrepreneurial compatriots grew immensely rich by capitalising on others’ insecurities and fears. Entrepreneurs promised to respond to the demand with a steady supply of goods, but in reality they saw panicked fellow citizens as a golden opportunity to seize. Whenever rumours spread, the prices soared up to 300 per cent and higher. We paid triple the price for substandard produce because we were uncertain whether or not it would be available a day later.
Experiences of deprivation become ingrained in our collective memory and quickly resurface every time the future begins to seem uncertain again.
A grocer next door observed a particular generational trend: people over 60 bought a higher amount of basic goods compared to younger people. The panicked shopping spree that induced over the Coronavirus scare on February 25 tells a tale of public uncertainty, possibly triggered by memories of austerity in ‘80s Malta, when supply of goods was limited and people travelled abroad to stock on chocolate and toothpaste. These may be bygone times, yet the memories still persist.
Alone in Times of Hardship
The mass panic revealed another insecurity—that of having nobody to rely on in times of hardship. Deep down, everyone who was filling up trolleys with basic goods harboured no illusion about the time and place they inhabit. They simply understood that, in a society where nobody cares about the needs of others, their security is their own concern.
Who will provide for me if the supply of essentials truly comes to a standstill? Would the authorities guarantee provisions of food and care? Can the neighbours be counted upon for help in case of hardship? The answer to these questions was evident to all embarking on the spree—it is a no.
The egocentric drive behind this phenomenon was also clear: even if my survivalist purchasing means fewer resources left for others, I must think of myself first and foremost…because this is what others do. If you are drowning you are on your own. In such ‘sink or swim’ circumstances, tens of cartons of long life milk, canned fish, meat and vegetables, multiple packs of toilet paper were a survival pack—and a psychological lifeline of sorts.
The most distressing chapter in this frenzied shopping tale reveals so much about contemporary Malta—a society of atomised individuals with zero trust in fellow citizens and the state.
The most distressing chapter in this frenzied shopping tale reveals so much about contemporary Malta—a society of atomised individuals with zero trust in fellow citizens and the state. This outcome designates the majority of us as losers, regardless of the content of our kitchen cabinets. The winners are shop and supermarket owners who, unexpectedly for themselves, have made great profits.
In the meantime, COVID-19 is driving sales of face masks, a game called Plague, and an ‘I Survived Coronavirus 2020’ T-shirt. Alpha Pro Tech company selling face masks in China registered a 60 per cent increase in its stock price. This is a metaphor for our capitalist societies in distress: one’s misfortune is someone else’s opportunity.