Sue Hackman continues her exploration of the language of the coronavirus crisis.
Panic is a mythological rather than a psychological behaviour. The word derives from the ancient god Pan who had the power to put fear into the hearts of people and make them flee.
In the current phrase, ‘panic’ combines with ‘buying’ to create a strangely twenty-first century nightmare of uncontrolled consumerism in which the greedy self runs riot down the supermarket aisles, stripping them bare. I am moment away from saying ‘plague of locusts’, another apocryphal metaphor.
There’s not much panic at Burpham Sainsburys. There’s a bit of sneaky over-buying. There’s a bit of weekly shopping every single day as a covert way of stocking up. There’s a bit of frustration at the empty shelves where fresh food, loo rolls and paracetamol should be. But the people of Burpham don’t look panicked to me. They are contingency-buying not panic-buying. They don’t wish to be left with nothing to eat in the land of plenty. Some of them are minimising contact by doing a big shop less often. And some saints are piling up their trolleys because they are buying for others who are confined to barracks.
Why, then, call it panic? Panic is a word that infantilises citizens and takes away responsibility for selfish behaviour by calling down dark forces. In fact, over-buying is a decision that people make. They have to be persuaded not to make it.
Interestingly, Italian citizens do not stockpile even though their situation is worse than ours. But they have not had decades of Thatcherism (‘there is no such thing as society, only individuals’) and the deep-grained Conservative theology of competition, the upward scramble and the proud-to-profit ego. No wonder we look after ourselves first: we have been coached in it by years of right-wing ideology.
Socialist values are better, they really are. Co-operation, equal access and compassion alone would stop people over-buying. We would all be better attuned to the common good. We wouldn’t want to strip the shelves. We wouldn’t need the reassurance that a garageful of toilet paper gives. We wouldn’t need a full cupboard before we donate compassion. We’d rather share.
Don’t call it panic-buying. Call it what it is: selfishness.