A crazed new world: coronavirus, paranoia, and Zombie Apocalypse shopping tips

By Hal Williams

YOU WALK into the supermarket, intending to just pick up a few things, and wha…. ? The place is swarming. Shelves are emptying, sharp-nailed hands are whipping into them like volleys of manicured arrows, all the trolleys are full to bursting – and there are more trolleys than people…

This is the moment when we learn how crises feel from the inside: confusing, slightly unreal, almost laughable in their extremity. People are following unfamiliar behavioural and instinctive cues. One day there are orderly queues, PA calls for Patricia to open another till or David to report to stores and that’ll be £37.50, thank you. The next, shoppers are eye-gouging for toiletpaper and punching each other out over the last bag of frozen drumsticks.

Tesco Colney Hatch by Michelle Davies
Colney Hatch Tesco in north London. Photo by Michelle Davis

Welcome to coronavirus panic-buying. An upside of the supermarket nightmares is an unprecedented number of staffed checkout lanes. But that’s about it.

The rest is what we’ve been hearing about on the news, but live and direct, up close and far more personal that we’d been expecting. The Ozzie battles of the bogroll were amusing from afar at the time for their sheer pointlessness (coronavirus, nasty little blighter that it is, doesn’t attack the digestive system). So why toilet paper? Because toilet paper. If entire families are loading a trolley each, fending competitors off with elbows and thousand-yard stares, what do you do? Grab a pack, quick, before it runs out.

And if we all think like that, voila: a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yes, Covid-19 is a health issue. But is it enough of a health issue to cause the stockpiling of dry goods as if in preparation for a comet strike and a spell underground? If news of the virus had hit the world pre-internet, would it have gathered quite so much attention?

Our actions and reactions are triggered by those of others, as demonstrated in Aisle 3 (napkins, paper towels, tissues and toilet paper). As below, so above: countries are one-upping each other with radical responses, closing borders, restricting travel, hosting sporting events to empty stadia, cancelling flights inbound or outbound, putting new arrivals in quarantine…

And good on them, but the stable door’s swinging and there’s no sign of the horse. Contamination has already happened, and paranoia, in all its wall-eyed, grunting glory, has followed. It’s hard not to overreact when shops and restaurants, even national borders, are closing. Governments around the world are urging – or ordering – people stay at home. It should come as no surprise that businesses are going to the wall – and not just vulnerable start-ups. Even the major players (British Airways, for one) are reeling. It’s been crazy, and sanity is still some way off.

What brought it home more than anything was the photo accompanying this article: the ransacked aisles of the Colney Hatch Tesco in north London. Trampled and torn goods and an abandoned trolley, the pillaged shelves; it looks like a set from Zombie Apocalypse. How quickly it all falls apart.

And of course it’s an ill wind that blows no good. Companies, organisations and health bodies are united in finding ways to keep us safe, find a vaccine, minimise the spread of the virus… and possibly even make a profit.

Even the fashion world is finding a place. Louis Vuitton owner LVMH is using perfume production lines to produce hand sanitiser and combat a shortage of anti-viral products in France. No profit here, though: the gels will be delivered free of charge to the health authorities. Nice one.

Advice on hand-washing, proper facemask use and coughing etiquette is everywhere – and the effects of the outbreak aren’t just physical. The World Health Organisation has delivered advice on protecting mental health during the outbreak. Those with OCD, especially, are battling with the sudden, and shared, reason to wash hands several times a day. Fear of being out of control and uncertainty are symptoms suffered by many people with anxiety disorders. Individuals with pre-existing anxiety are facing extra challenges at the moment.

And those neuroses are spreading to the mainstream, one supermarket at a time. Is time once again for some WWII-era, stiff-upper-lip platitudes? We’re all in this together, that sort of thing?

Because we are.

Further reading:

Business impacts






Work from home





Prepared, not panicked








Stop it, please.



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