OPINION | Panic buying is herd behaviour not in the interest of social good

South Africans queue for supplies outside a Makro store in Woodmead, Sandton, on 25 March 2020. (Rosetta Msimango, City Press)
South Africans queue for supplies outside a Makro store in Woodmead, Sandton, on 25 March 2020. (Rosetta Msimango, City Press)

In some instances, when it comes to matters for social good, herd behaviour can be a powerful force. When used for selfishness, all you’re left with is a smug sense of entitlement and an overstocked cupboard, writes Charlene Naidoo.


I have a friend who is a domestic worker.

Three times a week, she's up at 4.30am, boils water for a bath for herself and her two children and gets them out the door to school by 6am.

So, she can then walk for 30 minutes to catch a taxi to start her job in a Cape Town northern suburb.  

She earns R280 a day. Her children’s father doesn’t have a job, so they get by - a family of three - on R600 a week.

"Get by" being an overstatement.  

My friend is looking for other jobs all the time.

She is barely able to cover groceries and taxi fares and school fees and clothes and electricity and water on a normal day that doesn’t also carry the fear of being felled by a virus.  

The last thing she’s able to do during a nationwide shutdown is rush to the shops and buy enough groceries to last a full month.  

It doesn’t matter anyway.  

Because by the time she forks out R50 for transport, ineffectually covering her face with a scarf to ward off potential virus particles, and gets to a Spar or Shoprite, most of her battle is lost.

Because in the current maelstrom that is a Covid-19 inflicted world, we who (should) know better would have cleaned off the shelves of anything she could afford.

Lest we go without that sixth bottle of hand sanitiser.  

Not that hand sanitiser isn’t necessary right now. But it’s necessary for 55 million other people too.  

There’s a popular phrase, "Eat the rich". 

History, lore, Wikipedia tells us that in 1793 in Paris, after the storming of the Bastille and frustrated citizens having toppled the monarchy - a time of massive unrest and chaos followed.  

The new order didn’t bring immediate riches and fresh croissants, in fact anything but.

A revolution had occurred, yet the bread was still stale, and plates were still empty.  

The rumours abounded: all the good and fresh food was still going to the wealthy.

In the book, History of the French Revolution, social theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau was quoted: "When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich."

And now, perhaps, evidently the middle too will be eaten.

Because it’s not just the rich who are buying out soap and sanitiser and disinfecting wipes and boxes of long-life milk. It’s us. The middle.

Leaving no more for those who don’t have the privilege or luck to be in the middle. 

We will have more. There will be more food.  

Let’s allow the middle, the rich and everyone else to eat too.  

Our president has cautioned against panic buying and stockpiling.

Understandably, it’s a natural impulse.

Herd behaviour follows that a group of individuals will act collectively with a focused but haphazard objective.

It takes its name from the behaviour observed in herds, flocks, packs – groups of animals.  

In some instances, when it comes to matters for social good, herd behaviour can be a powerful force.  

When used for selfishness, all you’re left with is a smug sense of entitlement and an overstocked cupboard. 

-  Charlene Naidoo is Mondia Health: Editor

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