Pulling Together

Too much shopping

I went shopping this afternoon. Now, that might not be earth-shattering news. We all have to go shopping from time to time. The problem is this was a Saturday afternoon, and I usually avoid going shopping on Fridays and Saturdays because the shops are busy and everything just takes longer. However, I am running low on bread flour and yeast so I need to try to replace my stock before I run out.

I normally eat around one loaf a day, and because I like to restrict my salt intake to keep my blood pressure down I have to bake my own bread. In fact this is so important to me I actually have two bread making machines in case one breaks down and I have to wait for repair or replacement. Of course, it is equally important to have a reliable supply of ingredients. Over recent months I've noticed the flour is a little hit and miss, so I've taken to keeping about a fortnight’s supply in the house so it does not matter if it’s sold out the day I do my shopping. The problem is, all flour seems to be permanently sold out at the moment, along with many other items, and I am now down to my last bag, three days supply at most.

So, although it would have been much more pleasant to go out to walk in the woods and fields down by the river on a lovely sunny day, my footsteps today were bent in the direction of my local supermarket. They had no flour or yeast, and I began to worry. Perhaps I should buy potatoes instead, but others had evidently thought the same and potatoes were also sold out. I had no option but to leave empty-handed, placing my basket back by the door and head for the next nearest supermarket, where I found much the same scene. However, they did have some baking potatoes, so I helped myself to a couple of kilogrammes of those. Then I noticed people carrying packets of toilet rolls to the tills. Now, I'm in the fortunate position of living on my own and habitually buy a couple of months-worth of those at a time, so I’m all right for those, but my friend with the disabled son is almost running out, and tomorrow is Mothering Sunday after all, even if the churches are closed.

When I got to the toilet roll section, there was one long empty shelf, empty that is apart from one packet of a dozen rolls, the last one in the shop so far as I could tell. My conscience became troubled. Could I, who did not need them myself, buy the last packet in the shop for a friend who did? Suppose I deprived someone else who needed them by buying what I did not need? Yet, my friend either needs them or will very soon, and I was buying them for her. She is in need. I decided she wouldn’t thank me if I left them there, so I picked them up and went to the checkout.

Since they were not an item I had planned to buy I did not have a bag in which to put them, so I had to walk home with them in full view. This struck me as embarassing in a time of shortage. I also had some concern for my safety. Carrying any rare item in full view makes a person a potential target for robbery, even if the monetary value is low. As it happens, I was accosted once on my way home, by a van driver who wanted to know where I’d got them. I had to disappoint him by explaining they were the last ones in the shop, and felt very guilty.

According to the government there is no shortage of food and if people stop panic buying the shelves will stay full. Unfortunately that is not quite true. A few days ago, realising bread flour might not be available for a while, I put in an order directly with a milling company. Of course, I had to order a lot more than normal to get a decent price for a heavy bulk low-value item, but as flour was not appearing in the shops, getting it directly from a mill seemed the only way. Two days ago I got an e-mail from the mill saying they were very sorry, but although they are milling day and night, they will not have my order ready for another ten days. That was why, with only three days’ supply remaining I had gone out looking for interim supplies, and it now seems inevitable I shall run out before my order arrives. So it is not just there is no flour on the shelves. There is no flour in the mills until they can produce some more.

I still cannot help feeling all this is unnecessary. There is a disease going around that could kill up to 510,000 people in this country alone. However, it is not clear how many of these would be “excess deaths”, that is additional to those which could be expected anyway – 50,000, 100,000, 200,000? That is a lot of death and suffering by any standard, but so are the potential consequences of governments’ attempts to stop it. If to save, say 200,000 lives from a natural cause 2 million lives are wrecked by avoidable social and economic stress, and 10% of those lead to suicides, death from psychosomatic effects such as reduced immunity or death from malnutrition, one has to ask what would be gained. Of course, I’ve just plucked those figures out of the air, so they’re hypothetical in the extreme, but they do illustrate the potential harm over-reaction could cause. The panic buying is a consequence of the government scaring people with horrific scenarios and making people think they could spend the summer locked in their houses and unable to fetch what they need. None of this need happen if governments simply accepted that nasty diseases arise every so often and trying to prevent them, while worthwhile when there’s a chance of containing them, might not be viable once they have got out of their cordon.

The ironic thing is, that although the numbers look huge, compared with the population they are not that great, and there are diseases far nastier than this one, which is now estimated in the UK to kill less than 1% of those who get it. If I had any other diagnosis and was told I had a 99% chance of recovery I’d think those good odds for a potentially life-threatening condition. I would be very relieved with those odds if it were cancer or some other serious condition. Why are governments taking a half-empty approach and wrecking their economies and people’s psychologiucal well-being when, as diseases go, this is relatively mild? Is it just because it’s new, and will they do this for every new infection from now on?

The Italian experience looks horrific, and the intense lockdown does not seem to have stemmed the rise in infections even though it has far exceeded the average incubation period. That is worrying, because it suggests that even severe restrictions on people’s movements cannot slow the infection rate much, if at all. It is possible the new cases arise mainly from parts of the country which have not been locked down so long, but we might also have to consider that the effect of these restrictions is insufficient to justify the hardship created and the long-term economic impact of the high costs involved. I really would like to see information to give me more confidence what’s happening is really worthwhile. I see BBC journalists are beginning to ask similar questions.

Unfortunately, such information does not seem to be forthcoming at present. In the absence of facts, myths and rumours flourish, and that’s good for no one.

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