Early March; Mount Eden, 1.30 pm
Karen, wearing her Lululemon leggings and beige merino cardigan, is marching towards the entrance to Countdown with unwavering purpose. The keys to her Range Rover jangle in her hand. She reaches the trolley bays and pushes a young married couple aside in order to seize the last trolley in line. Frantically wheeling it through the produce section, she makes a beeline for the canned food aisle. Eyes wide, alert, ready – she begins to pile tins of baked beans, tuna and chicken soup into her trolley. Nearby, an elderly gentleman strains his arm upward, in attempts to reach a single tin of asparagus tips on the highest shelf. “Will he get out of my way?!”, thinks Karen. Right, on to the dried goods. Pasta, rice, noodles – she reaches to the back of the shelf to harvest the remaining eight packets of basmati rice. The boys love rice. Bread? Ten loaves should do it, the chest freezer in the double garage will be large enough. The almond butter is dwindling though. How inconvenient. Now – frozen food. She gathers up packets of frozen stir fry veg, frozen fish, frozen fries. One by one, she slaps them into her trolley. Last stop – the hygiene section. Nappies? She doesn’t have a baby, but you never know what this national pandemic will throw at you. Fifteen tubes of toothpaste should cover it, I mean – you can never have enough toothpaste. Delicately, Karen balances five extra-large packets of toilet paper atop her year’s supply of pantry goods. The trolley groans under the weight of all this food, as Karen struggles around a corner towards the checkout. $680.78 gone with the flick of her AMEX, she heads home.
Mid-March; Mount Eden, 10.00 am
Finally getting the kids off to school, Sarah struggles through the Countdown entrance. Her back has been giving her trouble since her car accident last month. At least she doesn’t need to use the crutches anymore, she thinks to herself. Mum is looking after the baby today, thank god, so she can get the grocery shopping done quickly. After picking up some bananas and apples for the kids, Sarah heads to the canned food aisle. Empty shelves line the aisle where normally stood baked beans, tinned tuna. A nugget of panic brewing inside her, she moves on to the soup section. The kids love soup, and it tends to go a lot further than most meals. Hang on – only a few cans of spicy lentil flavour left? The kids won’t stand for that. But it’s the only flavour left, so Sarah begrudgingly places them into her basket. That’ll cause an argument this week. Mentally calculating how much the food in her basket will come to, she carries on to the dried goods. The shelves stand empty. Bread – one measly gluten-free fruit loaf remains. And it costs $7.30. Moving on to grab some nappies for the baby, Sarah reaches the empty shelves and stares at them in disbelief. She frantically tries to remember how many she has left at home – 3, maybe 4? That won’t get her through the next few days, let alone the entire week. A lump forming in her throat, she observes that the toilet paper and kitchen roll aisle is also bare. Taking a deep breath, she heads towards the checkout, wondering how her three kids will make it through the upcoming week.
COVID-19 has finally hit our shores, with full force. As our schools, libraries, gyms, cafes and restaurants close – it is easy to see why the public are anxious. It causes us to act out in ways that are ridiculous and difficult to understand. It isn’t an exaggeration to suggest that we are living through a defining moment in our historical memory. It seems like, at one point, this virus was a distant beast – entirely detached from the day-to-day reality we lived in little ol’ Aotearoa. All too soon, this very real and very persistent virus was on our doorstep, and the stance of “this won’t happen to me” just couldn’t hold up anymore.
When the politicians began addressing us in sombre tones day after day; serious frowns and deliberate nodding – then we knew we couldn’t sit back anymore and simply watch this unfold from our television screens. Now the onus has suddenly been lumbered onto our shoulders – our weary, selfish, ego-centric shoulders – and it’s hard to know how to react, or how we ought to behave. As hard as it is to fight our instinctive impulse to only care about ourselves – do I have enough food? Do I really have to stay inside? What about my birthday drinks this weekend?! – this is a time for the human race to show up and take active steps to protect our fellow humans.
There is no doubt that this pandemic has caused us all to look entirely inwards at our individual wants and needs. If that means buying the supermarket out of hand-soap or trotting off to grab a cocktail on the viaduct, then so be it – and I’ll be damned before anyone ruins my week. Rather than looking inwards, we should, and must, look outwards at a time like this. This virus has the ability to have a grip over our planet for a good long while. The question is not what we can do for ourselves, but what can I (as a, presumably, fit and healthy young person) do for those who perhaps don’t have as much access to resources or healthcare as I do.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who has been left shocked at our common human response to something that presents such monumental consequences to our modern civilisation. As much as we would like to think that the community pulls together during times of global panic, this simply has not been the case. Not only has an ugly, deep-rooted class differentiation bubbled up to the surface in the form of stock-piling – but the stench of our individualistic tendencies has reached into every corner of our society.
As those employed in a comfortable 9-5 – who lounge in an air-conditioned office scrolling through Facebook for most of the day – pack up their company laptops and head off to work from home, let’s keep in mind that there are some who don’t have that luxury. Either its full time childcare, the prospect of no wages, or a mortgage that will run them out of house and home – there is something each and every one of us is struggling with. Unless you are Karen. Karen lives in a smart suburban home with three cars with full tanks. She has two pantries overflowing with long-life food, a hefty savings account, and a husband who will continue to receive a huge salary even if the office is closed. The pool has just been cleaned too. For those of us who can’t afford to pile up food, or work in a crappy retail job which is now closed, and the prospect of a pay-check to pay the rent seems elusive – it can be hard to know how this will all work out in the end.
So how can we, proactively, be a little less selfish during a time of imposed, intensive community alliance? A checklist for you to consider:
1. I’ve been to the supermarket and only purchased what I reasonably need for a week of meals. I have not emptied the shelves of items that are pivotal to those less fortunate than myself – such as toothpaste, toilet paper, pasta, baked beans. I listen to the government and believe them when they tell me that I will always be able to access food throughout this time of isolation and uncertainty.
2. I have checked on someone I know who is in a vulnerable position – either a neighbour on my street who is elderly and lives alone, or a friend who is immune-compromised. I have offered to buy them some essentials and leave them on their doorstep. I have organised a time every few days where I get in contact with them to offer empathy, support and an ear to listen.
3. I have made a concerted effort to not let racism, rooted in fear and misinformation, drive how I perceive the events going on around me. I recognise that every person, from every culture and every ethnicity, is in the same position as me right now.
4. I have ensured that my behaviour and actions will not add unnecessary stress or strain on my community’s resources, or the health and wellbeing of its members. I will wash my hands properly, even if it seems like a drag.
5. When the government asks me not to leave my home, except for food purchasing, medical reasons or daily exercise – I take this seriously and don’t justify reasons why these rules do not apply to my situation. I will realise that there is always someone in a worse off position than myself.
Collaboration is the only option. While the boomers scream at the millennials and gen z to, for once, do as we are told – let’s just shut up and do it. I am certain that not one of us wants to be stuck inside with our hygiene-deficient flatmates, or our stepdad who chews too loudly, or our teenage sister who weeps over not being able to see her boyfriend for a whole four weeks. Or perhaps, if you live alone, the prospect of remaining alone throughout this time is daunting for you extroverts out there. It is times such as these when we can acknowledge the immense power the community holds when we work together. That is the only way we are going to regain our freedom of movement and the ability to grab an almond milk flat-white whenever we please.
So, stay at home. Re-watch Friends or Games of Thrones if you have to and get to know your couch a little better. Take a second to reach out to make a positive difference for others (from a distance, with well-sanitised hands), rather than letting our unique human ability to be selfish take us over. And for god’s sake, stop buying the country out of loo roll.