The Market and the Invisible Hand of Coronavirus, By Bunmi Fatoye-Matory
Coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, probably has never heard of this invisible hand theory. In fact, scientists say the virus is not even a living thing. Yet, it has become a real invisible hand affecting the market, controlling the forces of demand and supply, skewing them this way and that, rewarding some beyond imagination, and leveling others to the point of destruction.
In 1776, Adam Smith, a Scottish moral philosopher and economist, proposed in his book, The Wealth of Nations, that the invisible hand regulates markets. Like some kind of spirit, it brings demand and supply into optimal equilibrium. It exists on its own, independent of human intervention, and acts as a force of nature controlling market forces. This assumption is at the cornerstone of modern economic theory but some economists have since pointed out that this idea is a fraud perpetrated on humanity, that Smith only mentioned it briefly in his book, and then countered it with the more reasonable argument that the market is rife for manipulation by self-interested parties. There is no natural force controlling the market, it is an aggregate of human activities, a creation of human will and opportunism.
Coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, probably has never heard of this invisible hand theory. In fact, scientists say the virus is not even a living thing. Yet, it has become a real invisible hand affecting the market, controlling the forces of demand and supply, skewing them this way and that, rewarding some beyond imagination, and leveling others to the point of destruction. For example, the restaurant industry has suffered tremendously because people no longer go out to eat, and interestingly, fancy restaurants have been hit hardest. People who patronise upscale restaurants and drop hundreds of dollars on a meal do it for a number of reasons, which sometimes have little to do with the food. Going to such places is an opportunity to establish social rank, show off fashionable clothes, enjoy being served by spiffy-looking waiters in a great atmosphere shared by other very affluent people. It is an opportunity to see and be seen, and the presentation of the food matters more than the food itself. Chefs in such places are considered celebrities in their own right. Fine dining restaurants are theatres of performance, beautifully choreographed.
During this COVID era, however, the preference has been for ordering food from casual and fast food restaurants, which is perhaps consumed in unfashionable house wear peculiar to housebound people. All the rituals of fine dining do not fit this COVID moment. Fine dining fares are not suitable for home delivery, with their artfully-designed and arranged meals, which are only fit to be displayed in decorated gustatory theatres with stars after their names. Food and grocery delivery have seen a huge jump in demand, while the travel industry has taken a huge hit. That favourite pastime of Americans, cruising on the seas for leisure, is another industry that COVID-19 has put under. Since those cruise liners are petri dishes, which can spread infection rapidly among thousands of passengers, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has put a ‘No Sail Order’ on them to prevent a public health disaster. Like those spirits in old folk tales, COVID-19 has taken control of our lives in small and big ways. It has upended what and how we consume.
When it made its grand entrance a few months ago, and governments asked their citizens to retreat and take shelter at home, there was a mad rush to supermarkets and grocery stores. COVID-19 exposed the deepest anxieties of society in the patterns of consumption. One of the products that people were hoarding immediately was toilet paper, a strange demand psychologists are still trying to figure out. The lowly toilet paper became so sought after that it disappeared completely from the shelves. In fact, people started stealing them from public restrooms, an act usually associated with deprived and under-resourced Third World countries. In Japan, a society regarded as orderly and rule-governed, people were pilfering toilet rolls from public restrooms. The situation became so serious that Mink Itachibe, a shop keeper in Niigata Prefecture, put a curse on the toilet rolls in her store’s bathroom. She drew sketches to invoke vengeful spirits to bring misfortune on whoever stole the rolls in the bathroom. This threat seemed to have worked because the pilfering stopped immediately.
…during the panic buying attendant upon COVID, not a grain of rice could be found anywhere in my usual grocery stores. Shelves of rice, beans, flour, yeast, meats and chicken were empty. COVID assaulted the American way of life that takes abundance as a birthright. This is a country where so much is produced to satisfy every whim and so much is also discarded.
This is not unlike aale in Yorubaland. Anyone who grew up in Yoruba towns and villages knew not to touch the fruits of a tree on which certain mysterious objects were dangling. There was no mistaken what the intention of the owner was. It is generally understood that stealing anything on which aale was placed was to invite disaster and misfortune on one’s head. The Japanese version worked for Mink Itachibe. This is the way of COVID-19, revealing the superstitious side of a highly technological and modern society like Japan. In another twist to the bathroom worries of Americans, sellers of bidet, that French invention used to wash up after people finish in the bathroom, reported that its sale has skyrocketed. Bidets are not a normal part of American bathrooms, not even the most luxurious ones. Yet, Americans lurched toward bidets as an alternative or supplement to the scarce toilet roll. For years, experts have told us that toilet rolls are not the best for cleaning, that they are not environmentally sound, and they do not even take care of the business very well, but for many this message didn’t seem to have resonated until COVID-19 struck.
People also hoarded soaps, disinfectants, hand sanitisers and, to my surprise, rice. Before COVID, I was of the impression that rice is a staple of new Americans, rice-loving immigrants who brought that taste from their old countries. I had thought that Americans prefer pasta, pizza, potatoes, and bread as the carbohydrate of choice. However, during the panic buying attendant upon COVID, not a grain of rice could be found anywhere in my usual grocery stores. Shelves of rice, beans, flour, yeast, meats and chicken were empty. COVID assaulted the American way of life that takes abundance as a birthright. This is a country where so much is produced to satisfy every whim and so much is also discarded.
Ola Rotimi, the late playwright, once said when you want to know the extent of affluence of a person, do not look at what s/he consumes, but at what s/he throws out. So much is thrown out in this country that some people, out of need or ethical principles, engage in an activity called dumpster diving. They retrieve perfectly good food that have been discarded in dumpsters by grocery stores. These range from fresh vegetables, fruits, bread, crates of eggs, canned goods, dry goods, bottles of juices and even meats that are still fresh enough for consumption. Individuals also discard furniture, clothes, shoes, hand bags and household goods that in many other countries will be the pride of the middle class.
A dear friend in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a scholar, furnished his home solely with the furniture he retrieved from the sidewalk, where they had been discarded to be picked up as trash by the city. Refrigerators, freezers and household utensils are regularly discarded because new ones are affordable enough to enable this kind of waste. In this society where abundance and waste are a way of life, recent shortages, even though artificial, must present a deep threat totally unfamiliar to the average American psyche. Supply chains, we are assured, are not necessarily broken, but COVID-19 with its invisible hand has altered the patterns of demand, which far outstrips supply.
Classes in educational institutions have gone online, and it seems this trend would continue into the foreseeable future. Our adaptations are for our survival, as the invisible hand of COVID-19 alters our priorities and ways of life. We are living according to its rules, and it is yet to be seen in what new directions it will take us before it is vanquished.
The trajectory of shopping, too, illustrates what Abraham Maslow, a psychologist in the mid-twentieth century, described as the hierarchy of needs. His idea is that human needs and priorities could be represented in a pyramid. At the base are the essentials like food, water, air, shelter. Then we move up to social needs and the desire for self-actualisation. COVID-19 has shown that this might be true, as our patterns of consumption evolve. Food and other essentials were first hoarded as we retreated into the safety of our homes. But a few weeks into sheltering, the CEO of Walmart, Doug McMillon, gave an interview in which he said that consumption had entered the “hair colour phase” because of the products flying off Walmart’s shelves.
Confirming Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, people were buying beard trimmers, hair dyes, nail polish and other products meant for grooming. This came after they had stocked up on games, puzzles, educational and entertainment products. Online shopping is booming. Jeff Bezos has added $35 billion to his personal fortune since COVID-19 entered our lives, catapulting his net worth to $150 billion. His company, Amazon, delivers a substantial amount of the goods we order online. While many industries are shedding workers, his company is hiring. Very few vehicles are about because of the stay-at-home order, but there is not a day I do not see Amazon vans in my neighbourhood. In fact, some days, they are the only vehicles on the street.
Before COVID, apart from people in the business world, only a handful of people had heard of Zoom, the video conferencing service. Now, many people depend on it to fulfill professional obligations and to maintain relationships and start new communities. Sheltering means we could no longer go out to take care of our emotional and mental health needs by meeting with friends, neighbours, and family to share, hug, laugh and eat together. Zoom currently has 300 million users, up from 10 million users last December, with the numbers increasing daily. Classes in educational institutions have gone online, and it seems this trend would continue into the foreseeable future. Our adaptations are for our survival, as the invisible hand of COVID-19 alters our priorities and ways of life. We are living according to its rules, and it is yet to be seen in what new directions it will take us before it is vanquished.
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a writer and culture advocate. Email: email@example.com