Guest editorial

Towards the end of last week, after it had been announced that a Guyanese woman who had travelled home from the United States and shortly afterwards had become the country’s first coronavirus fatality, the national mood underwent a perceptible shift. It was not so much that the protracted drama linked to our March 2 general elections had disappeared from public consciousness as that it was now compelled to share the public stage with the fact that COVID-19, which we had, for some time, been monitoring from a safe distance as it did its rounds at what may have been felt to be a safe distance, had eventually made a telling stop here.

Guyanese are, by nature, quick responders to circumstances that have an air of crisis about them. Those responses are usually grounded in an acute sense of self-preservation. They are not, however, always either reasonable or rational.

The word around was that the COVID-19 virus could be sanitized away and that was all it took to trigger a frenetic flurry. Supplies outlets were descended upon and disinfectants, detergents and the like were bought up ‘in bulk.’ Unsurprisingly, price-gouging and ‘shortages’ reared their heads. We were, in one fell swoop, back on territory that had been part of a forgettable history.

In times like these we are used to dispatching SOS’s to our ‘people’ in the US. Consignments of detergents, face masks and the lot would be ‘no big deal.’ America, after all, is the land of eternal plenty; so that our situation would be salvaged this time around in much the same way that previous emergencies had been attended to.

This time around, for a change, America’s response was less than fulsome, its customary generosity diminished in the face of its own identical challenges. COVID-19 had visited America too and our fears, our vulnerabilities, had become theirs too.

The extent of America’s worry over its own COVID-19 virus had been glaringly manifested in the recommendation by the country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that for the next eight weeks, organizers cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of fifty people or more across the entire US. America is the most powerful nation on earth and not even its own national institutions bosses it around in that fashion. But is seems that the CDC took the bull by the horns. What it had to say was an unmistakable sign that the authorities had fully internalized the magnitude of the threat that COVID-19 posed. It had decided to put its proverbial cards on the table. What the CDC had to say was termed a “guidance announcement.” It was specifically – and daringly in the context of America – cautioning against “large events and mass gatherings that include conferences, festivals, parades, concerts, sporting events, weddings, and other types of assemblies.” That, mind you, included, NBA games. In America you do not cancel NBA games without some earth-shattering reason without risking some kind of national pushback.

People, whether Americans or Guyanese, activate instinct+ linked to self-preservation when the circumstances so dictate, or at least appear to do so; and even as we in Guyana were ‘invading’ our distribution outlets in search of disinfectants that had, in the twinkling of an eye, become hard-to-get items, America was pressing its President, no less, into service to urge against hoarding and panic buying. This surely was not America, the ‘land of plenty’ with a reputation for virtually unbreakable supply chains.

In parts of California grocery stores were virtually emptied after (according to one media report) “panicked shoppers swept through, stocking up on supplies.” No, not California but some beleaguered supply outlet somewhere in coastal Guyana or some other similarly-appointed Third World nation.

But then the irrefutable truth was being reinforced by widespread US media reports that Americans had descended upon their groceries with such ferocity that it had necessitated an urgent exchange between the President of the United States and food industry executives to discuss how the food supply chain was ‘holding up.” And this, we must remind ourselves, was America!

One media report asserted that grocers had been “limiting purchases per customer of hand sanitizers, toilet paper and other high-demand products”. Pure propaganda, one might think! Not really. It required intervention at the very highest level to pronounce on panic buying. “You don’t have to buy so much. There’s no need for anybody in the country to hoard essential food supplies,” the President of the most powerful country in the world had been asked to assure a jittery nation where, out of a sense of consummate fear, Americans were reportedly “buying three-to-five times what they normally buy.” They had, it seemed, been pushed to a wall by their fears of what COVID-19 could do. Enter Donald Trump, again, to urge the country’s ‘top grocers’ to ensure that the shelves were stocked with necessities so that Americans can “feel calm and safe,” a national security exhortation if ever there was one.

It could well have been Guyana, one might think, where we have had historic experience of ‘food insecurity’ and its disruptive consequences. Even now, (and among developing countries we are by no means alone) we may not yet have experienced that extreme sense of worry that has already been manifesting itself in aberrant consumer behaviour elsewhere. But then we have seen it all before. What the American experience is telling us is that when issues of self-preservation, whether real or imagined arise, are perceived to be the ‘bottom line,’ people’s responses are not really all that different, after all.

— Courtesy Stabroek News

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