FEBRUARY 10 — Imagine for a second your children suddenly hoarding food and supplies in their rooms: What would that say about your household? About the environment of trust and care in the family?
Pandemics and outbreaks can do to a society what general deprivation does to a human body: It brings to light many repressed fears. Which in turn compels certain actions — like buying up four tons of Maggi Mee for a family of three.
Like what’s happening across the causeway.
260AD vs 2020AD
In 165AD a totally bad-ass plague swept through the Roman empire, wiping out a third of the population including one or two emperors.
This was the Antonine Plague. About a century later in 251AD the Plague of Cyprian hit and this time even the rural areas surrounding Rome were affected.
It’s said that, at its height, up to 5,000 people were dying each day in Rome.
Understandably, throughout these disasters, many of the sick were abandoned (and even pushed off carts and left on the road), some even by their loved ones.
There was, however, one group of people who refused to abandon the sick but did their best to nurse those afflicted by the disease. These were the Christians.
Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria writes in 260AD:
“Most of our brothers showed unbounded love never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.”
Outcome? Many Christians died in the course of helping the sick, yes, but many of the sick also recovered who wouldn’t otherwise have.
And why did the Christians do what they did? Because they were part of a community which believed in caring for each other.
You can bet the last thing the Christians did during the plague was to “panic buy.”
Fast forward 1,800 years or so, and we read in the papers that one of the most successful nations in South-east Asia is seeing its citizens annihilate the shampoo and toiletries at Cold Storage because its government raised the alert levels for the 2019-nCov disease to Orange.
Thousands of Singaporean folks decided that — despite what the government says — there wouldn’t be enough peanut butter should some drastic regional lockdown occur.
And they would starve because they’re afraid their neighbours (or Singaporean society in general) would be so unkind as to actually not help each other out?
Why else would people obsessively buy up so much stuff, unless there was a genuine fear that sharing wasn’t going to top the list of community activities if things really got tough?
Put differently, if we believed that we would all help each other out (as a neighbourhood, as a nation), why would anyone want to go to Tesco’s and wipe out the cookies section?
Here I wish to say that unless I’m completely wrong about life in Malaysia, I’m pretty damn sure our own panic-buying will be at a minimum no matter what “colour” our Response System Condition is, right? Right?!
Why do I believe this? Why do I suspect that panic buying in Malaysia, should it happen at all, will be at a very restrained level?
Because almost every story about kampungs in Malaysia I have ever heard or read always involved the community working together to help each other out.
Sure there are disputes and there’s always one or two idiots but overall I can’t imagine a case where most families will refuse to share food or water or basic necessities should a pandemic happen.
These folks will gladly and joyfully wipe out the sugar and flour during Raya season but would only do so because they intend to share the fruit of their work with everyone.
Because in my own apartment block, so many of my neighbours have offered assistance to me (despite my introvert-ness) and every other day I see people sharing food, insights, food, stories, food (you get the picture).
Because in so many churches and religious communities I’ve visited or have fellowshipped in, the sharing of each other’s lives has been an essential component of what it means to be part of that community.
Show me a regular church-goer who panic buys and hoards food and I’ll probably show you a person who doesn’t understand what on earth he’s listening to every Sunday morning.
I’ve seen families giving tons and tons of biscuits and milk and rice to orang asli communities in Cameron Highlands — what are the chances these same people will not share food with strangers who are sick (let alone friends)?
I’ve seen people regularly ride up and down the garbage-strewn alleys of KL, giving away bread to homeless street folks — would these people slam the door on hungry neighbours or 2019-nCov patients in need?
Because in my own extended family I have seen amazing levels of generosity, of giving, of sharing and kindness, even among cousins and aunts and uncles who see each other no more than three or four times a year.
With all the respect I can muster, I’ll say that panic buying is only for kiasu societies. Malaysia, especially New Malaysia, should be better than that?
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.