Friday , April 3 2020
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Panic! What panic?

There is nothing quite like queues and empty shelves to sell news stories.  So it is that the UK media have finally got the story that they have been waiting for since SARS-CoV-2 began its 2020 world tour.  Toilet rolls, hand sanitiser and sanitary towels are just a few of the items which, along with basic tinned goods and UHT milk have (apparently) all but disappeared from the supermarket shelves in the past few days.  This, we are told, is the result of “panic.”  But is it really?

On many occasions in articles about the ongoing retail apocalypse, I have drawn attention to the fact that there is little visible difference between a store that is going out of business and one which is thriving.  Step inside both and you will see lots of people browsing and buying.  The difference is that in the store that is failing, there are just a few less customers each making just a few less purchases; and that is all it takes to tip a store over into bankruptcy.  In a similar, but opposite, manner it only takes a few extra customers to each buy a few extra items in order to strip the supermarket shelves clean.

The drive for efficiency means that there isn’t a warehouse behind your local Tesco, Waitrose of Aldi.  When the truck arrives, all of the goods are put out on the shelves; and that is all there is.  Complicated algorithms analyse past behaviour and factor in variables like weather and temperature to work out which goods need to be loaded onto how many trucks in order to meet ordinary demand.  But even the best algorithms are unable to factor in global pandemics and foolish governments.  Faced with both, it is no surprise that shelves are temporarily empty… but for good reason.

Public knowledge about SARS-CoV-2 is scant largely because scientific knowledge is in short supply.  While scientific teams around the planet attempt to understand the virus and its effects, develop vaccines and discover treatments, the broader medical establishment is engaged in an elaborate global version of Maslow’s Hammer – since all of our pandemic emergency plans are based on influenza, then we must assume SARS-CoV-2 will be just like a flu virus.  In which case, lots of hand washing, using tissues or sleeves to catch coughs and sneezes, avoiding crowds and praying for warm weather makes a lot of sense.

The trouble is that the evidence emerging from China and – more recently – Iran and Italy point to something more virulent and a lot deadlier.  In such circumstances, government statements designed to do little more than keep people’s spirits up – while offering little in the way of a practical response (beyond “leave it to the experts”) – does little to reassure an internet-connected public that the government has their best interests at heart; particularly when the Secretary of State for Health gets caught in a blatant lie, claiming that plans exist for supermarkets to deliver food supplies to people isolated in response to SARS-CoV-2, when such plans may not even be possible.

People are not stupid.  We can all see the draconian measures that have been taken in China; the only measures thus far, by the way, to halt the spread of the virus.  We can also see the attempts at quarantining large parts of Italy.  It doesn’t take a genius to work out the we need to protect ourselves from our government when it finally decides to instruct, coerce or compel us to go into lockdown for anything from 14 to 30 days.  With the number of confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 doubling every 4-5 days it is only a matter of time (days rather than weeks) before NHS resources become strained to the point that some government action is unavoidable.  Initially, this is likely to involve attempts to persuade firms and individuals to voluntarily quarantine.  It will also involve bans on large gatherings and restrictions on the use of public transport.  But if the number of confirmed cases grows at the current rate, we will be up to 1,275 by next Monday and up to 5,000 a week later.  We will reach 100,000 by Easter and 1,000,000 April 26.  As the BBC reports today:

“A European Union expert said the UK had only a ‘few days’ to implement measures to prevent an outbreak like Italy’s, which is the worst outside China with 7,375 confirmed cases and 366 deaths.

“Sergio Brusin from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme: ‘The UK is in the same situation Italy was two weeks ago.’”

The UK government has been some two to three weeks behind SARS-CoV-2 since it was first reported in China.  For several weeks in January and early February, the standard – and entirely ineffective – temperature check on passengers arriving from Wuhan was the only measure used to halt the spread of the virus.  Then, as the public health authorities tried to seek out people who had been in contact with people carrying the virus, the first cases of unknown transmission within the UK emerged.  Even today, with Italy on shutdown, air travel from the quarantined region into the UK solicits no more than a plea for travellers to voluntarily isolate themselves for 14 days; which may, in any case, be too short to prevent the spread.

In such circumstances it is entirely reasonable to work on the assumption that the government will eventually order an Italian-style quarantine without the proper plans and preparations in place.  And while most of us lack the storage space to provision our families for a prolonged siege, making sure we each have a month’s supply of toilet roll and some basic dried foods – pasta, rice, etc. – and tinned goods is just being prudent. 

It may look like panic, but in reality it is just a measure of how vulnerable our just-in-time supply chains are to unexpected shock.  Remember that the supermarket shelves were stripped bare after a few inches of snow fell in March 2018, but shortages were quickly overcome.  As Bill Wilson at the BBC reports, a week from now it is likely that the supermarkets will have adapted:

“According to a survey from Retail Economics, as many as one in 10 UK consumers is stockpiling, based on a sample of 2,000 shoppers.

“But Dr Andrew Potter, chair in logistics and transport at Cardiff Business School, told the BBC: “Whilst there might be empty shelves at the moment in the shops, over the next week or so, we will see them replenish.”

The real panic, when it finally arrives, will not be from a public which – quite correctly – mistrusts its government; but from the government itself when it wakes up to the reality of exponential growth in those infected with SARS-CoV-2, and discovers that Britain’s critical infrastructure – including its public health facilities – have been overwhelmed.

As you made it to the end…

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