“Stockpiling” and the Blame Game

shopping-3225130_1280Here in the UK, stockpiling citizens are being blamed for empty supermarket shelves. Stockpiling is part of the problem for sure, though not all stockpilers use legitimate means to acquire their supplies. However, there is also stocking up, and the fact that more people need more food and domestic supplies these days. I’m going to explain why, then suggest a partial solution. UK examples, probably also relevant in other parts of the world.

I have asthma. Fortunately I have a supportive partner with no underlying health conditions who has been doing our shopping (or maybe unfortunately if that brings me the virus; we’ll see). A few weeks ago several national newspapers in the US, UK and Australia – maybe elsewhere too – were advising readers to stock up before the coronavirus spread. (I’m not providing links as we understand this very differently now; if you want verification, the articles are easy to find online.) If I was living alone, I think when as our Prime Minister announced that vulnerable people would soon be asked to stay home for 12 weeks, I would have been trying to buy enough supplies of non-perishables to enable me to do that. Not stockpiling; stocking up, exactly as some newspapers had been advising.

Now, staying at home all the time means I need more supplies. If this week was going as planned, I would be away at a friend’s house over this weekend, away again for a night midweek, and so would only need a top-up shop of a few perishables for my four nights at home. I would have taken several meals, and used other supplies, at motorway service stations, in restaurants and cafes, and at my friend’s house. She would have bought a few extra bits, but not a great deal; there are four people in her household, and feeding one extra mouth (and wiping one extra bum, washing one extra pair of hands etc) doesn’t require much extra shopping.

Because I am staying at home all week instead, I need to buy more than usual. Also, I’m aiming to increase my social distance by moving to one weekly big shop from a single supermarket, rather than a few visits to various shops through the week. Yesterday afternoon I had managed to land a click-and-collect slot and I did a whole weekly shop. Am I stockpiling? No, I’m stocking up. I didn’t get everything I wanted but I got enough to see me through the week.

Many others will be in a similar position. Not eating in cafes and restaurants, not using toilet paper and soap in service stations and railway stations and cafes and restaurants and hotels, not visiting friends’ houses. I know the restaurants and cafes have only just closed, but many of us have had the sense already to socially distance. Ideally we need to buy enough of everything at home, in one go, for a full seven days or even longer.

Also, there are more people than usual who need those supplies because nobody is going abroad on holiday. The UK population do this a lot. There are over 66m of us on this damp little island, and 17% holiday abroad each year – that’s over 11m – for holidays with an average length of almost 9 days. This means that, in an average week, at a conservative estimate over 215,000 people are out of the country on holiday for the entire week. So they are not shopping in the UK’s supermarkets.

Then there are the people who travel for work, or to visit family and friends. In 2018 there were almost 72m trips overseas from the UK. That’s almost 1.4m trips per week. Of course we get visitors too, but far fewer; almost 38m in 2018. And over half of those go to London. Holidays are the most common reason for those visits, and tourists in the UK are much more likely to eat in hotels and restaurants than to shop in supermarkets.

So there is a net increase in the number of people using UK supermarkets right now, and we need more supplies than usual because we’re doing everything at home. Being unable to get those supplies for ourselves and our families is causing fear, anger, and sadness. The thinking behind this post was inspired by a Facebook post from a friend, who wrote:

So just been to do my mum’s shopping. For the past x number of years we’ve bought 4 cartons of uht milk every week, so she doesn’t have to worry about running out. She used to have a milkman deliver, but milk kept getting pinched. She’s 87, eats next to nothing, but likes her cornflakes and cups of tea. Just made me sad. She requires so little but I can’t get what she needs.

However, there is at least a partial solution to this. There are food wholesalers who usually deliver supplies to restaurants, cafes, hotels etc. Those businesses will be making fewer or no orders. We need to join up the wholesalers with community groups, local retail outlets (if they don’t supply them already), and food banks. One or two are already showing willingness to sell to personal customers, as long as a minimum order threshold is reached, and showing initiative in recruiting more drivers and other staff. The others need to follow suit.

Stocking up is an everyday response to unusual circumstances in our lives. Scheduled for surgery and need to convalesce at home? Better stock up. Going on your annual staycation in a caravan, tent, or rented accommodation? Get the supplies in. Christmas on the horizon? We all know what that means. So it seems to me that most people are behaving quite normally. What people aren’t taking into account is that the circumstances we now face are not the ordinary kind of unusual; they are unprecedented.

I’m not blaming the Government for this. Of course I can criticise some of their decisions, but it’s a complex, fast-moving, and unique situation, with a huge number of factors to balance; mostly I’m thankful I’m not involved in making those decisions. I’m not blaming the food industry either. Retailers, thrown into the front line of a global crisis, are doing an amazing job. As so often, I find myself thinking the mainstream media need to take a long hard look at themselves, though perhaps this too is easy to say because of course I have the benefit of hindsight.

I suspect the actual stockpilers – those trying to provision themselves for months or years – are in a small minority. And at least some of those people may be thinking it’s a sensible response to the situation because, once provisioned, they can take themselves right out of the equation for a long, long time.

It feels more difficult right now to acknowledge that it’s OK for people to think differently from us. I find myself railing against people who aren’t practising physical distancing – “why are they so STUPID, don’t they REALISE” – and struggling more than usual to imagine myself in their place. When we’re fearful – and all of us are fearful – it’s easier to demonise others. But I don’t think it helps. Maybe what we really need is to stop blaming people, and acknowledge that most of us are doing our best, according to our own, inevitably flawed, knowledge and understanding.

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