Will Covid-19 make us into more mindful consumers?

The coronavirus is everywhere. In the air, on surfaces, and in the news. It is harmful and, at worst, deadly. But there is another harmful threat that has accompanied the virus and that is stockpiling.

From the minute the coronavirus came to our shores, small waves of stockpiling panic broke out as people witnessed the storm migrating, having seen it and its consequences wreck havoc in Asia. More and more swells occurred until a deluge descended upon our supermarkets, pharmacies and stores.

From mid-March, countless images and videos abounded on social media and the news of people with trolleys waiting impatiently for supermarket doors to open, queues hundreds of metres long, snaking their way around megastores and their car parks. To add a figure to such images, an additional 15 million more supermarket visits were made from the 17th of March compared to the previous month. People have been going in with trolleys empty and coming out with goods overflowing. They are stockpiling anything and everything they can get their hands on with some of the most sought after items being the seemingly most mundane of everyday objects: loo paper, hand sanitiser and, water. There are also the usual stockpiling suspects such as baked beans, tinned fruit and vegetables, biscuits, dried pasta and rice but there has also been a worrying hike in people stockpiling medicines. Countless pictures of shelves stripped bare are an all too common sight, their contents now furnishing our cupboards, fridges and freezers: we are hoarding more than £1bn worth of extra food.

Despite repeated reassurances from the government that there is enough for all and an open letter from supermarket competitors urging people to ‘be considerate in the way [we] shop’, whole swathes of the country have taken little heed. Why are people acting like this? It appears crazy, selfish, thoughtless and is harmful to society more widely.

Looking at the resources most sought after (loo paper, hand sanitiser and water), at first glance it is confusing. Google’s top search hits are ‘Why are people stockpiling loo roll/water/hand sanitiser’. Digging deeper, however, it provides an explanation in how we react in times of panic. Psychologists are interpreting this manic behaviour in various ways. Panic ensues panic and when people see shelves empty of certain goods, the irrational element of the brain kicks in which ‘leads to the craze over the item intensifying’. In addition, people are not fearful of the virus itself but do have a fear of losing ‘first-world comforts [such as] being able to use the toilet’. And here is the common link threading these three items: they all symbolise methods of cleaning: with the virus ever present yet something we cannot see, touch or control, we reach for items that ‘trigger our need to feel safe’ and clean. With water especially, one of the most precious resources on the planet, the BBC reported that communities hit by the virus in sub-Saharan Africa are having to choose between washing hands or quenching thirst. This really does put a lot of our panic into sobering perspective.

It’s not just the resources we take for granted but also the convenience and ease with which we can source them. As I read it, for us in the West, our expectations have been set so high that we can obtain anything we want with very little real effort, at times only having to lift one finger towards that bright blue light of our smart phone. It isn’t just the worry of scarcity of resources but also the worry over the loss of convenience of acquiring these resources. If we cannot grab them immediately at our local shop, then why not bring that convenience into our home? 

Our selfish, thoughtless hoarding is being truly laid to bare in the cries and tears of those far more needy than ourselves. Those at the frontline of the NHS have been unable to get the nutritious food that is required to keep themselves and therefore the live-saving machine of the NHS going. Food banks, which are a lifeline for many families, are shutting down because they cannot meet the increase in demand due to a decrease, and at times scarcity, of resources. The vulnerable, including the elderly and infirm, who require a ready source of food and medicine have also been losing out. Deprivation of food and medicine for those most in need is one very real, immediate cost of our present mindless consumption.

But there is also a longer term cost to the mindless consumption and ungrateful expectations on resources that we have placed on our planet. And that is being seen in the state of the Earth in which we now find it.

Many lessons will be learnt, and perhaps forgotten, from this global crisis but one legacy which I hope survives is the consideration for, and consumption of, the world’s resources. With a fifth of the world’s population being asked to sit put, the lungs of our planet are finally being allowed time to breath. We are already witnessing the benefits of such a pause.

Now is the time to consider: how much do we actually need to survive, thrive and be happy? If this crisis teaches us anything, it surely must be that we can get by with a lot less whether that be food or travel. It can also teach us the need to share precious resources more kindly and wisely. This crisis will also demonstrate that, for all the talk and discussion and debate as to how to be more sustainable, mindful and appreciative of the Earth’s resources, we don’t actually need endless talk to take action. We can act and respond effectively benefiting not just people but the planet too.

Of course, it would be heartless not to mention that lives are being lost, redundancies are being made and the economy is spluttering. This virus is leaving and inedible and unwanted mark. But with such losses, good should follow and I hope that we can be taught and teach each other a  long overdue valuable lesson in mindful consumption and greater sustainable living. 

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