I am currently in Vienna, where in the neighbouring “Bezirk” a whole street was blocked off by the police when suspicion arose that someone in a school with around 500 children was infected by coronavirus. The test was negative. But the fear and paranoia in Vienna is rising. A few days earlier, a train from Italy to Austria was stopped at the border for fear of infection. Now the supermarkets are already noticing higher demand for products such as canned food and pasta.
One memorable reaction to the current great fear of coronavirus could as well be a sketch from the famous American sitcom Seinfeld. This was a video recording shared in recent days by an elderly Italian man on social media.
He was filmed at the exit of an empty Italian supermarket emotionally saying “The pasta shelves are empty! What’s happening?” His response not only deserves a medal for dark humour, but invites us to seriously rethink our current historical moment: “There wasn’t this much panic when World War II started!”
As coronavirus is turning into a global pandemic while the “infomedic” is spreading even faster than the virus itself, it seems an old German proverb is becoming relevant again: “When war enters the land, then there are lies like sand” (Kommt der Krieg ins Land, Dann gibt’s Lügen wie Sand)
Coronavirus is not a war, but the fear and anxiety in all corners of the world resembles a war-like situation. There are as many “fake news” rumours as sand. And one phenomenon is becoming quite common everywhere – this is panic in the supermarket.
Already in mid-February when the news about coronavirus reached Hong Kong, panic-buying in the city’s supermarkets caused shortages. One among many surreal episodes was an incident with armed robbers stealing hundreds of toilet rolls. And there was, as would occur all across Europe only two weeks later, a run on supplies such as rice and pasta as well as face masks and disinfectants. The same behaviour was soon noticed in Singapore, Japan, Thailand, New Zealand, Australia and Taiwan. Then it started in United States and Europe – first in Italy, then in Croatia, Austria…
In Germany the word of the day is now Hamsterkauf – a combination of German hamstern, “hoarding” and kaufen, “buying”. While this term is normally used to describe the act of stockpilling ahead of store closures or weekends, today people are flocking to supermarkets because of the fear that they might be forced into quarantine. At the end of February, the German supermarket chains Aldi and Lidl reported an increased demand for pasta, canned food, flour, sugar and toilet paper.
Perplexed at why people were panic buying, in a leaked private conversation, Singaporean trade minister Chan Chun Sing accused the people of engaging in “monkey see, monkey do behaviour”. But can we really dismiss panic buying just as “monkey” behaviour, mere imitation, or is there something else underneath the current coronavirus frenzy?
What has to be stated first is that this is not the first and certainly not the last time that people are manifesting overwhelming anxiety through frenetic consumerism. There are similar examples of panic buying throughout our recent history.
One of the most famous buying panics happened during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when Americans stampeded the supermarkets to stock up on canned goods, thinking that World War III could break out at any moment. The stock market dropped sharply. Other examples include panic buying of fuel during the 1973 Oil Crisis or, more recently, the panic buying of supplies provoked by Hurricane Katrina. What all these examples show is that panic buying can’t be easily dismissed just as “irrational behaviour”. In all these examples there was indeed a good reason to be worried.
Again today there is a prevailing sense of insecurity in all parts of the world. The prevailing affect today – a collectively shared situation – is precisely a “sense of an ending”, a sense of an imminent threat. And since the threat is invisible it is finding scapegoats, provoking racism and xenophobia – first the “eating habits” of the Chinese, then the Chinese themselves became identified with the virus, and as coronavirus first appeared in Europe the racist chorus towards the Italians began to gather momentum.
However, and this is what most of the commentary on coronavirus tends to overlook, a response to a crisis doesn’t necessarily have to be negative. Famous historic examples include the twentieth century antifascist movement around Europe or “spirit of the Blitz”, and more recently the solidarity among people faced with natural catastrophes, from hurricanes to floods.
Global catastrophes usually provoke all sort of reactions; very often they lead to more control and surveillance, sometimes even to totalitarianism, but at the same time, they can also bring to the surface the underlying inequalities and contradictions of a certain system. Sometimes they can even lead to revolutions. When the Black Death wiped out a third of Europe’s population, its effects on society and economy also destroyed feudalism.
Another more recent example is the so called la Grande Peur (“Great Fear”) that refers to the wide-spread feeling of anxiety in France in the second half of July and early August 1789, when the countryside joined the town in revolution. It was researched in detail by the great French historian Georges Lefebvre who was famous for coining the term “history from below”. What interested him was not so much the French Revolution itself, but what were the preconditions for the French Revolution to take place?
And the answer was the “Great Fear” which was a defensive reaction against an “aristocratic plot” in a situation in which France was already faced with economic despair and universal fear. But fear breads fear, so in the end it gave a great stimulus to the revolution in the countryside – there were food riots, agrarian revolts, municipal revolutions, self-organisation.
As Lefebvre shows, the general panic that took place during the French Revolution was the result of rumour. But unlike today, when rumour is mainly being spread by governments or through the social media owned by Chinese or Silicon Valley companies, these rumours were spread among peasants who were already facing grain shortages, rising food prices and unemployment, and together with agitation they were carried, mainly through oral transmission, from village to village and market to market.
“But for the government and the aristocracy”, notes Lefebvre, “this means of transmission was a great deal more dangerous than freedom of the press. It goes without saying that it favoured the spread of false reports, the distortion and exaggeration of fact, the growth of legends”. Why was it so dangerous? Because it also created the conditions for the peasants’ revolts and a “municipal revolution” that would pave the way for the French Revolution. Rumour, panic and fear, even if it is very often irrational, played a significant role in this important historical process.
No wonder in 1815, when Paris was occupied by the Allied Powers of Europe, Justus von Gruner, the notorious Prussian head of the Allies’ police in Paris, constructed a sophisticated network of amassing rumours. The reports he would daily receive from his agents always contained a section on “Gerüchte” (rumours), which were assembled in the Parisian cafes, on the Boulevards and in the many salons.
As the historian Beatrice de Graaf shows in her work on that interesting period, this “rumour intelligence” was a direct consequence of the experience of the previous revolutionary period – the occupied forces knew very well that Gerüchte can be dangerous and even lead to the overthrow of a system.
In times of uncertainty, it is precisely information that becomes precious. In times of coronavirus, the whole globe has turned into a marketplace of misinformation and rumour. But rumour is not merely “fake news”, it is rather a piece of information that has not yet been confirmed, but at some point of transmission it is believed to be true. It is not necessarly false information, it is rather an unconfirmed trace of information that fills a void in the absence of reliable information or trust in the government.
That happened in China, when the silencing of the whistleblowers provoked even more rumours. It happened in Iran, where the behaviour of their authorities (Iran’s Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi who appeared on TV without a face mask although he already had coronavirus) led to even more panic.
It is also happening in the United States where a whistleblower revealed that US health workers lack training and protective face masks. No wonder people are panicking and storming the supermarkets, they do not believe the system.
What most of today’s world governments obviously don’t understand is that it is precisely censorship and mainstream “fake news” that fuel even more rumours. As one humorist put it during the First World War: “The opinion prevailed in the trenches that anything could be true except what was allowed in print.”
So in the absence of giving much relevance to newspapers and official statements, there is a renewal of oral tradition and rumour. As information that is still not confirmed, rumour is always political. It shows a mistrust in authority and existing structures of social order. Rumour might as well be the central political category of the early twenty-first century.
And here we come back to the panic at the supermarkets that has now, after Europe, also hit the United States. What if panic-buying is not so much an irrational behaviour, but rather a rational response to a situation in which the world is ruled by irrational leaders? When the United States president Donald Trump is saying coronavirus is the Democrats’ “new hoax” or Serbia’s leader Aleksandar Vučić suggests citizens should drink strong alcohol, how can anyone keep calm and carry on as if things were still normal?
However, what this global panic-buying pandemic shows is that it actually functions as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy – very often it is the panic-buying itself that creates the shortages. Or to be more precise, the belief that there is “panic” – and that the government either lies or doesn’t have things under control – makes it more logical to act individualistically. When such irrational and unreliable leaders are occupying state power, stocking up pasta, as ridiculous as it sounds, actually gives people at least some sense of control.
Today, just like during the events that led up to the French Revolution, what is needed to set off a wave of fear is a rumour, a piece of gossip, or even auto-suggestion. And just like in the period of the Great Fear, the background of our contemporary global anxiety lies not so much in the fear of a virus, but in the fear of a future without health-care and functioning states.
Today, just like in the period of the Great Fear, the real fear lies in poverty and unemployment, in the daily unveiling of a system that is broken. And even if we can already see the coming of an even stronger surveillance capitalism, merging of thermal scanners and facial recognition, bio-political control of populations and restrictions on mobility, what if it is precisely this panic and rumour that also contains a potential emancipatory feature?
The pasta shelves are empty, but this is a great chance to pause for a moment – even in quarantine if necessary – and reflect on the fact that it’s not coronavirus that is killing the planet. It’s global capitalism.
Srećko Horvat is a philosopher from Croatia. He has published more than 10 books translated into 15 languages. This article has been republished under a Creative Commons licence from Open Democracy.