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Essay

Countdown to Lockdown: Fear and Loathing in the Trolley Race at the End of the World

Keith Lyons from Christchurch discovers that the big world seems very small when it comes to stockpiling for the coronavirus.

If I had to choose a place to be to sit out the coronavirus pandemic sweeping over the globe, there are probably few places better than the South Island of New Zealand. A significant number of the world’s super-rich have invested in the Southern Hemisphere nation, some even buying residency through a controversial and secretive ‘Investor Plus’ scheme. Tech startup incubator for Reddit, Dropbox and Airbnb, Sam Altman, Pay Pal’s Peter Thiel, and the co-founder of LinkedIn Reid Hoffman are among those who have invested, buying secluded boltholes and luxury bunkers. One US company has constructed more than three dozen doomsday bunkers in New Zealand. Several of my friends have worked for ‘high net worth individuals’ as staff at remote lodges and on luxury super-yachts.

Kim Dotcom, of Megaupload, is among those who have decided to call New Zealand home. I call New Zealand home because I was born here. And now I’ve returned ‘home’ after more than a decade living in China and spending the last few years in South East Asia.

In February, this year, my route back from India via Myanmar took me through Phuket airport where a taxi driver had already been infected with the coronavirus. Transiting Kuala Lumpur’s KLIA2, after an overnight in Denpasar International Airport in Bali, I discovered no tests had been made to determine if anyone had the virus. Then a short stopover in Melbourne, Australia, where there seemed to be no additional measures to combat the spread of the corona virus. Even on arriving in my hometown Christchurch, there were no temperature checks or questioning to see if I had come from China, Italy or South Korea. In mid-February, the most stringent measures encountered were in Central Phuket Festival mall, where the handful of customers going from one half of the normally teeming mall to the other side were stopped for a temperature check.

If 9/11 meant greater security with screening for knives, box-cutters, and nail files, and having to take out water bottles, mobile phones and laptops, almost two decades on, we are now adding to the security screening with thermal cameras and the symbol of 2020: thermometer guns. After the masked official at the Phuket mall held his gun to my forehead, satisfied that I didn’t have a raised temperature indicating fever, he turned it around so I could see the digital reading: 36.8 C. Now, I am not expert on human health, so assumed it was not too hot and not too cold, as I couldn’t make out if the official was smiling or grimacing behind his mask. At least they aren’t taking the readings the old-fashioned way, rectally.

One of the things about the coronavirus is that is it invisible and faceless. Like an imaginary menace. Its presence is only made more tangible and real when we see on TV the patients in ICU units, doctors and nurses in masks and glove hurrying around with beeping ventilators and tubes, maps showing the spread of the new virus which threatens like a hurricane.

The other thing about the coronavirus is the speed at which it moves, spreads, and intensifies. When I travelled back from Asia to Australasia, coronavirus was primarily a Chinese problem, with some possible spread to Italy. But as February turned into March, it became more apparent that this Wuhan wet market virus was going global big time.

I guess we should have all been ready for something like this to happen. It was corona virus — COVID19 — there was bound to be a pandemic which would sweep the world, infecting millions and killing many. After all, such an event has been predicted by everyone from Nostradamus and Bill Gates to author Dean Koontz (see conspiracy theories) and The Simpsons. There are even some among us who believe one episode of The Simpsons foretold the self-isolation of Tom Hanks.

There are also those among us who having known something like this was going to happen have made preparations for their survival. This is now an ‘I told you so’ occasion for the smug ‘preppers’ who feel vindicated having lined their shelters with emergency rations, first aid kits and firearms, though this coronavirus thing is turning out to be mild compared to the much-anticipated zombie apocalypse scenario. Instead, it seems the ‘always carry’ list for those fighting the hidden enemy includes wet wipes, hand sanitiser, and N95 masks. The US company Preppi at one stage marketed a special US$10,000 prep bag which included gold bars for bartering.

My hometown, Christchurch, has experienced several traumatic events this last decade. A large earthquake in mid-2010 followed by a more devastating quake in early 2011 damaged nearly 100,000 buildings, half the city’s roads, and killed 185. A year ago, a white supremacist gunman shot dead 51 people at two city mosques. New Zealand is geologically young, and prone to natural disasters including earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, so most homes have emergency kits with food and water to last at least three days.

However, the prospect of an infectious pandemic with a lengthy lockdown period has taken most citizens by surprise. When on the second-to-last day of February news broke of the first case of coronavirus in New Zealand, brought by a resident returning from Iran, I was in my local supermarket a few hours after the announcement. There was no flour available, the shelves of the 1.5kg bags and 5kg bags were empty. It was not just the ordinary white flour, it was high-grade flour too, along with self-rising flour and wholemeal flour. On the next aisle of the Countdown supermarket, a Thai woman was posing for a photograph in front of shelves half empty of rice. I mentioned my observations later to friends and family, wondering if there was a shortage or some other reason.

A few days later there was news of a second case, this time arriving from Italy. But even though this virus had arrived on our shores, it seemed like its impact would be insignificant, as it was not spreading, and those returning to New Zealand had mild symptoms, not unlike a cold you pick up during a long haul flight. There were reports that some supermarkets have been swamped by customers buying toilet paper, hand sanitiser and tinned food.

Ten days later, the news was full of events happening far, far away in Italy, Iran and South Korea. The coronavirus had spread to more than 100 countries, and infected more than 100,000 — a few days earlier the World Health Organisation declared it an official pandemic. In New Zealand, the sixth case of the virus is confirmed. This did not deter my parents, who did their regular Saturday morning shopping at their usual supermarket. “Yes, it was quite busy, busier than normal,” my father noted.

During our Sunday dinner, I casually mentioned that maybe this was the last weekend that we would have the freedom to do things as normal, and perhaps from now on, it might be best if I went and did the shopping instead. My parents looked at me as if I have overstepped the line between parent and child. Over-reacting again, they are probably thinking.

An international cricket match between New Zealand and Australia was played in an empty stadium, and then the rest of the tour called off. Cancelled too was the memorial service for the mosque attacks. I visited the neighbours of my parents, bringing them a date and walnut cake I had especially made according to a detailed Iraqi recipe. My visit interrupted an interview with a documentary crew from BBC about their son Hussein who was shot dead trying to stop the gunman.

I felt like I am moving between worlds, from the warmth of the kitchen to the coldness of a massacre, and then outside, there was something sinister and foreboding which was looming bigger than kindness, bigger than tragedy, an acute existential crisis that was unknown in its quantity and impact.

In the following week, I set about sourcing various things from around town, and stocking up on supplies. I got some seeds to plant for autumn and winter harvest. I visited two Indian grocery shops to procure green cardamom seeds, almonds, ready-made chapatis, MTR ready-to-eat meals and dosa flour mix. I loaded the boot and back seat of my parent’s Toyota Ractis until its suspension springs almost snap from 450kg of wooden pellets for their fire. With my mother we did one big shop, making sure we got her favourite brands and the foods preferred by my father who is recuperating from an operation for bowel cancer.

During my daily shopping visits, I noticed that this wasn’t the normal shopping experience anymore. I did not witness any of the stockpiling in the early days of the crisis, though at a store I did overhear a staff member tell his colleague, “We need to bring out the remaining fruit stock we have out back, as it is all selling fast. I am not sure why.”

In early March, there was already a run on particular items, most noticeably and perhaps misguidedly, folks were stocking up on toilet paper. I am not sure the rationale behind this, somehow extrapolating that toilet paper might not be available in the future. It seems many people had the fear reaction triggered, and it was compounded by seeing supermarket shelves already half empty of toilet rolls. Toilet paper is non-perishable and will all eventually be used, so it is not an unnecessary purchase. It also is bulky and takes up space, so its absence in supermarket shelves signals to us ‘shortage’, while having it stocked up at home fulfils some primitive need to be prepared and ready, and also signals that we are smart shoppers, having ample supplies of large 16-roll 4-ply toilet paper, what a bargain and an easy way to relieve worries of not being prepared for the impending doom.

There is a meme doing the rounds with a kid asking his mother, “What is the corona virus?” with the parent replying, “Shut up and eat your dinner” with a picture of a bowl serving a roll of toilet paper. The panic buying of toilet paper was a reaction to the mixed messages about the possible severity of the coronavirus, something of an emotional pacifying purchase to gain control over our hygiene. In other countries where a bidet, bum gun or old-fashioned scoop and water pail is used, there must have been some eye-rolling when stories emerged of Westerners stockpiling toilet paper, price gouging and even scuffles in aisles to secure the rolls of toilet paper.

The government was quick to reinforce the message that was enough to go around, and that essentials would be available. That seemed like the sensible approach. And it was an appeal to people’s sense of community and togetherness in fighting the virus spread. But in times like these, a different mindset kicks in. One of my longtime friends showed me a photo of his partner in the supermarket. After finding the shelves stripped bare of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, they found a whole carton of sanitiser behind other items on another aisle, and much to the shame of my friend, his partner (from South America) loaded the carton into their shopping trolley, later posting on social media of her cache.

That shared image, along with the footage of empty shelves and shopping trolleys piled high with supplies reinforce the panic buying mentality across the world. In Hong Kong, thieves held up a supermarket to steal a delivery of toilet paper. In Australia, a newspaper printed eight extra pages for use as emergency toilet paper in case supplies run out. Now in many supermarkets, there is a limit of two items for these symbolic products along with other essentials, with security guards and supermarket staff patrolling aisles and scrutinising shopping carts.

I noticed during my pre-lockdown shopping excursions quite a range of responses by fellow shoppers. Many were doing big shops, marking off items on a checklist. Some were clearly in unfamiliar territory or were struggling to decipher the list given to them by their partners or friends. “Is tomato puree the same as tomato puree?” one man asked me rather than call his wife again to clarify the differences. In the aisles, it was interesting to observe the interactions of couples, with usually one being ultra-cautious and thorough, while the other (usually a male) being more carefree and unperturbed. “Shouldn’t we get one just in case?” I heard a woman still in her airline uniform ask her husband, who was displaying the typical New Zealand ‘no worries’ attitude. “No, she’ll be right. We can always get it later.”

As well as tension between shoppers, there was also a new dynamic I noticed. Individuals or families were largely in their own bubbles, increasingly aware of the need to stay clear of others who might be contagious. But shoppers were also aware of the goods others had purchased, peering into nearby trolleys, noting what products others were stocking up on, or what items they had secured the last of. On a few occasions, my eyes met others after a mutual trolley check out, and I made a mental note to get a particular item, or even scoffed at other’s purchases.

As well as the hoarding of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, it was the quick sell-out of perishable items which suggested widespread fear of missing out. Bread and milk were coveted items, along with eggs, meat and fresh vegetables.

However, it was the stockpiling of non-perishable items which contributed to the overloaded shopping carts and baskets, and perhaps revealed most about our globalised connected world. Despite the news being full of footage from northern Italy about the horrors of the virus, in New Zealand and Australia, and other countries, shoppers opted for Italian food. Pasta, pasta sauces, tinned tomatoes, risotto rice and olive oil quickly disappear from shelves. On one supermarket run, I found only a few packets of flat lasagna, just the wholemeal and wheat-free varieties, and the following day, nothing except a couple of damaged packets of cannelloni, the pasta meal that requires the most preparation.

But it was not just Italian food we sought for comfort in our emergency supplies and lockdown rations. While most of the fresh produce is still grown locally, increasingly more things are being imported from Asia, in particular China, along with Vietnam and Thailand. Even homegrown brands are sourced from overseas or made of ingredients from as far away as Chile, the USA, Ecuador or Spain. Closely reading the fine print on a bag of mashed potatoes reveals it was made in Belgium, the tuna was canned in Bangkok, while the frozen strawberries hail from Peru. In the dry noodle section, I have to choose between Mamee from Malaysia or Yum Yum out of Thailand. It is a small world after all.

As I shop locally but collect items from around the world, I wonder if it is being sensible or selfish. I wonder about those that can’t afford to stock up, who survive week to week.

As the coronavirus morphed from a foreign plague to a resident contagion, stores imposed limits on some items, increased cleaning and hygiene, and tried tactics to ease consumer’s concerns. My local Countdown placed a pallet of toilet paper just inside the entrance to signal that there was plenty of stock available. Health authorities reinforced the key message that soap and hot water for a 20-second hand wash was better than sanitizer. I started to get emails, some obvious ‘cut and paste’ jobs, from every business about how they were protecting their staff and customers.

Around this time, there was news of a case in Christchurch. The next day, the government announces it was closing its border, to all but citizens and permanent residents. On the following Saturday, 21st March, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on a four-level alert system, raising it to Level 2, then a couple of days later raising it to Level 3 and outlining the move to its highest level 48 hours later. Businesses and schools have been closed, everyone had to stay at home, the only reason to venture outside was to shop at supermarkets for essentials, visit a pharmacy, or doctor. It was a lockdown, though people could go out to exercise as long as they did it in their neighbourhood and did not mix with others.

This pandemic quickly changed the boundaries and borders.

It spread. New hotspots light up the world map.

My own personal geography changed too. Other than my local supermarket, less than a 15 -minute-walk, I also factored into my shopping a fresh vegetable market nearby, and a branch store bakery offering bread, milk, savouries and sweets. I figured that this trio of shops within walking distance could be relied upon for my future shopping, along with the pharmacy.

When I first visited the bakery, it was business as usual, and I was rather surprised to see the staff not wearing any additional protective masks or gloves. Three days later, it was a completely different story. I had to wait outside to be called in. There was a station set up with hand sanitizer and blue gloves to be worn (optional) and customers were reminded to keep their distance from others. At the checkout, items had to be placed on the counter, and the customer was asked to step back behind a line so the clerk could price the purchases. The choreography meant the shop assistant would step back and the customer then approached the counter, to pay by card (no cash was accepted), pack their own bags, and then exit, allowing the next person in the queue to go through the routine. On returning home, I described the new shopping behaviour to my parents, who seemed amused at all the fuss. I was half expecting them to say it was all ‘health and safety gone mad’.

The next day I checked Facebook for the store hours and there was a notice that the outlet was now closed to the public. The greengrocer who had reduced hours to ensure more time for restocking also posted a similar notice, not being able to ensure a safe space, and also deemed by the government to be non-essential.

Yesterday I braved the cold winds and ventured out to Countdown (a New Zealand supermarket). Having to wait outside in a long queue, spaced 2m apart, operating on a one-out/one-in rule that meant when I finally got in and cleaned my basket handles, most aisles only had one or two shoppers nervously avoiding each other, and imploring with dagger eyes ‘keep your distance, buddy’. In the chilled food section, I had a moment when I thought I might sneeze, and I worried that if I did, security guards would bundle me up into a bag to be dispatched the hospital. On my list of items to buy was black pepper, but I skipped that, fearing that a whiff of pepper might induce a sneezing fit.

Back home, gloves discarded, hands washed, items sprayed, I pondered the craziness of it all as I savoured my cup of hot miso soup from Japan. All of my shopping could be in vain if I get the virus. One of the first symptoms noted by doctors in Europe is that those with the coronavirus lose their sense of smell and taste.

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. He has been published in newspapers, magazines, websites and journals around the world, and his work was nominated for the Pushcart prize. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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