Supermarkets’ response to
Covid-19 don’t have Roger Ratcliffe
rolling in the aisles

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From now on many of us will feel a bit squeamish about using the expression “gone viral”, two words that were so innocently introduced to each other in happier and healthier times.

As far as I can tell the idiom was adopted by the US’s switched-on webnoscenti back when YouTube was an infant in the noughties, then spread like a you-know-what on Facebook and Twitter.

For a video, gif or link to go viral it has to proliferate quickly and widely on the internet, peaking at around 40,000 shares in just a few hours, then winding up with accumulated hits well into six figures and sometimes more than a million.

Away from cyberspace, here on real-time planet earth most of us are seeing something actually go viral for the first time in our lives. As I write, the total number of confirmed cases of Coronavirus globally was passing 200,000, a figure that’s certain to be significantly higher by the time you read this. The difference is, of course, that Coronavirus isn’t accumulating thousands of “likes” or earning megabucks for some star YouTuber. It is killing people, heading north of 10,000 worldwide.

Politicians and media pundits keep comparing our response to it with how we coped as a nation in the Second World War. This time the enemy is germs, not Germans, I heard someone wisecrack on the radio. Personally, I don’t get the wartime connection beyond our prime minister trying to look and sound Churchillian. During the war the threat was largely over the horizon, and most people went about their daily business. Today the danger is everywhere.
The only true comparison between Coronavirus and the Second World War is uncertainty about food supplies. This time, though, the problem is entirely self-inflicted.

The scene that will last in my mind long after the pandemic is over – and already it is impossible to imagine what normal life will look like whenever that happens – took place in a Leeds supermarket last week. Customers were clearly stockpiling. I saw a young couple with two loaded trolleys waiting at one of the check-outs, and overheard the man telling someone that he had just bought a second-hand freezer dirt-cheap on Gumtree, put it in the garage and was filling it up with whatever he could find. This explained why the meat shelves were completely empty even by lunchtime.

Supermarkets have tried to appear virtuous and requested that customers don’t panic buy while in reality encouraging bulk purchasing. At that Leeds supermarket the space at the entrance that I remember being stockpiled with bottles of prosecco and boxes of chocolates for Valentines Day was – I kid you not – dominated by great white towers of loo-rolls.

I found a similar piece of hypocrisy at another supermarket, where stickers had been placed on shelves of pasta – already stripped bare – asking customers to buy only what they need for the next few days. At the end of each aisle, however, were stacked multipacks of tinned tomatoes and beans, clearly a green light to stockpile.

So far I think our major food retailers have not performed well during this crisis. Belatedly they claim to be controlling numbers of purchases, but with profits recently plummeting for all of them there needs to be official scrutiny of their actions.

Interact: Responses to Supermarkets’ response to Covid-19 don’t have Roger Ratcliffe rolling in the aisles

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