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Social Distortions: A Few Short Words About the Public Response to the Coronavirus Panic

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Fin lives in California's Central Valley and is interested in social issues and creative writing.


I went to visit a local shopping center, with the intention of picking up a few items. If you know anything about life in the Spring (northern hemisphere) of 2020, you understand there was an issue that inspired panic buying.

The following is an episode in my life during this period.

One that I am not proud of...

I always try to keep in mind the basic principles of CBT - Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Your thoughts influence your emotions and dictate your actions. This is a cyclic model where the Mind, Body and Spirit are all interacting.

If you have an unwanted feeling - you can basically think it away. If your behavior is not what you are wanting to do at the moment, think of something pleasant or change the way you feel. And your actions will follow.

Ultimately, you are responsible for what you do.


I have to write about an episode that happened when I was out shopping at the Walmart. I am writing this partially as a confession and in hopes that there may be some redemption. I do not feel good about the way i acted and I don’t think it is reflective of who I am as a person.

I was pushing my cart down the aisle, moving past the automotive, the men’s, women’s, children’s clothing sections, up through domestics and headed toward the area where they held products such as paper plates and cutlery. Up, along the bend would be napkins, paper towels and an empty shelf where they usually carry toilet paper.

My attention was suddenly directed toward a store employee who was talking to a customer.


The employee said, “You can only take one of those, sir.”

The man said, “At Albertsons they let me take more.”

“Well, they will stop you at the checkout lines.”

And then I heard him mumble something unintelligible. The employee walked away.

I walked past the aisle he was standing in and looked down it. There I saw some items which I had been seeking for the past three weeks: Lysol disinfectant spray and sanitary cleaning wipes. The man had two of the disinfectant wipes in his cart. He was also standing directly in front of the products, talking on his phone. I couldn’t quite hear what he was saying, but I was certain he was trying to find a way to abscond with his more than rationed allotment.


“Excuse me,” I said very quietly coming up behind him.

Just then a woman approached in front of him and reached out and grabbed another canister of wipes. The supply was dwindling quickly, and more people were walking by the end of the aisle, looking down in this direction. There were maybe five or six left on the bottom shelf.

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At the top, I saw some bottles of spray – lemon scented – my favorite. I couldn’t tell if they were in a bundle or if the four or five, I saw there were singles. Either way, these were necessities that everyone else in town had seemed to manage to get a hold of. Now it was my turn.

The man just stood there. I wasn’t sure if he heard me. The noise in the store echoed loudly and he was occupied with his phone - and much too old to be doing so.

From "The Lonely Crowd"

Etiquette can be at the same time a means of approaching people and of staying clear of them.

— David Riesman


I tried to nudge around him a little because I realized that If I just stood there, I would be less visible. I moved toward the shelf and then to the side. I was certain he had seen me because I noticed a sideways glance.

Suddenly I became terribly impatient and this need to engage in vigorous physical activity filled my central nervous system. I inhaled deeply and exhaled quickly. I felt my muscles tense up and I could hear the rhythm of my heartbeat in my ears and a pressure that you sometimes feel when you are climbing or descending a steep hill in a motor vehicle. I saw my hands reach out before I thought about it, or perhaps the thought came so fast that I didn’t pay it any attention. One of the dangers of automatic thoughts is that we tell ourselves they are out of the bounds of control – which they are not. We, as thinking beings, are completely capable of controlling our thoughts.


And recognizing the CBT model: thinking, influences emotion which control actions.

This time I could feel my thinking getting the better of me. The cart lifted off the ground and in its airborne trajectory moved about three feet to the right and came down with a thud that I was certain could be heard way over in sporting goods or even the craft section (which is usually uninhabited anyway) twenty aisles away.

“Hey! Her cart was in the way!” I heard the man yell. He whipped around and having moved the cart out of the way I noticed a walker. It was brown, perhaps made of some metal like aluminum and had black handle grips you see on the handle bars of a bicycle.

“oh….i am sorry, sir” I heard the meek voice of the woman, holding the canister of Great Value Fresh Scent Disinfectant wipes close to her chest the way you would expect someone to carry miniature schnauzer under her sweater.

“No, you were gossiping on the phone,” I asserted. Not really sure of the true nature of his cell phone conversation but if someone has to talk on a phone in public it must be gossip.

I reached down and grabbed one of the containers which I was seeking – it was green and white with the store logo on it. I had hoped for lemon – the obviously more popular variety and the Great Value Fresh Scent Disinfectant wipes were what I was stuck with.


I quickly hurried away and could feel the anger slipping through my body toward my feet. The blood drained from my face and dripped into my knees which buckled slightly. I had to catch my breath and then I felt as if there were twenty cameras pointed at me and that there were more than a few people staring and when someone said something to a companion as I passed I was certain that one of the phrases they used was “that guy”.

I wandered around the store for a bit, looking at things I didn’t need.

I started to get sad. And I thought about what I had done and how I responded. I tried to make some sense of it – the man was a no-good hoarder cellphone talker cart walker pushing aisle blocking miscreant with no regard for other shoppers and such.

You can rationalize anything.

I thought about what just happened and I reflected on my philosophy concerning mass hysteria and how I always understood that large groups were dangerous because people will do things in mass that they would not do if they were alone. I looked at some of the items I added to my cart when I only came here for a couple of things – the New York cut (prime – much better than choice) which I planned to use for tacos or slice up and make a sandwich with tonight. The hamburger buns, the Romaine lettuce, and the baby-cut carrots even though I would never eat any of the latter.

I guess I was chagrinned and moved my cart toward the exit. Trying to shrink inside myself, pretending I was a tortoise. I moved to the self check, not looking up at any of the people around me and then moving quickly toward the southern exit, lifted my receipt in the air for the exit greeter.


© 2020 Finn


CHRIS57 from Northern Germany on April 12, 2020:

A lot to be observed in behavior in these troubled times.

In our little city we have a quarter, where mostly immigrants from former Soviet Union have settled. Some 4 weeks ago before our lockdown started in Germany, we went to a large grocery store in that quarter. Shelves were empty in the store. No dairy products, no potatoes, no flour and by the way no baking soda. But - some piles of my favourite toilet paper were left.

So we drove on to another store of the same chain in another quarter of our city. That other quarter is close to our university, teachers, academics, students living there predominantly. Same day, same situation, what was missing there: Toilet paper and goods for personal hygienics.

My wife and i had a good laugh, while analysing the situation. Apparently, people who had some experience in living in restricted conditions know, what is really important.

We are now 4 weeks further. No more shortages, stores are full. No more empty shelves. Only some remarks remind of the initial situation: "Only purchase of standard household quantities allowed".

Finn (author) from Barstow on April 11, 2020:

Well Burgess I hope you are wrong about that, but unfortunately, I have to agree with you.

Ken Burgess from Florida on April 11, 2020:

Liam, I have always been an American, but I spent 12 years in the army and almost half of those were overseas, so I have more of an outsider's view on Americans...

Part of my nature as well,I was always one to project out and anticipate reactions and costs.

You don't shut down Package plants, processing plants, harvesting routines and slaughter houses for weeks or months and expect things to go back to normal... there will be food shortages, there is a disruption in the food chain, and the consequences for every week that this continues multiplies the problems we will face as a nation.

The worst is yet to come.

Finn (author) from Barstow on April 11, 2020:

Well thank you for the kind words....I enjoy writing.

I think lot of Americans take things for granted and have a sense of entitlement. I'm not sure if that's what you were implying, but that's what I would read into it.

As far as the future is concerned, and coming to food...I have stocked up on a little bit of it. I hope it does't quite come to that because the shelves here are pretty barren. Everyone seems to be preparing for the worse.

Curious as to where you are from the way you reference the USA.

Ken Burgess from Florida on April 11, 2020:

Well, first let me say you have a true talent for writing and telling a tale.

For such a small event, which I would have not even given a second thought about, you were able to pack a substantial amount of thought, reflection, and action into.

But I also find it fascinating, because I am beginning to realize that most who live in the "Western World" will not be able to survive if this crisis continues, if food shortages begin, if violence becomes the norm.

The capacity to farm or hunt one's own food, the ability to survive if our society devolves into a 'survival of the fittest' type of reality is absent in over 80% of Americans, and I'd imagine much the same for the EU and Australia.

When the situation changes in a few weeks, and it it isn't about grabbing that sanitizer... but grabbing that last can of food on the shelf instead, I wonder how much deliberating and angst will go into that scenario for you?

I would certainly be interested in reading about it.

Finn (author) from Barstow on April 11, 2020:

Yes, I am regretful... :(

Prateek Jain from Madhya Pradesh, India on April 11, 2020:

This is sad but i appreciate that you admitted it.

Finn (author) from Barstow on April 10, 2020:

Yes, it is unfortunate and the mob mentality that is taking over is borderline insane. I have heard about the acts of violence resulting from such mundane basic items like Kleenex etc. I have heard people in my community talking about the long lines and that seems very strange to me. I remember seeing reports about gas lines on the news in the 1970s. And people getting shot.

Finn (author) from Barstow on April 10, 2020:

I never thought about it this way, but this is a good point. There is something to be said about gender dynamics and I am very interested in men's issues because I think there is a lot of bias against men in our society today.

I would like to hear more about what you have to say because i wasn't sure how you interpreted my writing. Please feel free to msg me any time.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on April 10, 2020:

Liam, these are frantic time it seems in regard to Supermarket shopping. I have had to resort to ordering toilet paper online because there has been none on the shelves for two weeks. The same with hand sanitizer.

I have heard of worse things happening than what you did. An elderly woman with a walker was pushed over in a fight to obtain the last roll of toilet paper and a trolley collector stabbed at one store. Store employees have even been spat on for restricting the number of items a customer can have. Thank you for sharing but don’t feel too guilty.

CHRIS57 from Northern Germany on April 10, 2020:

Please, this is happening everywhere and anytime to - mostly men. Reminds me of the little story of us humans still keeping the behavior of stone age Neandertalers. In those time men were hunters, women were collectors. For hunters, decisions had to be made in a split of a second, collectors took much more time to select the good from the bad. I think you already imagine, what i am up to. In our times this difference in behaviour can be seen when shopping. Takes the ladies hours to select while men only rush through the store. A study showed that heartbeat/ bloodpressure of men at the cashier rose, while remaining unchanged for women. (Payment resembles the kill of the prey, and stone age women didn´t hunt, so they never needed and need the extra adrenalin) Not all is under full control of modern man, don´t worry about your "instinctive" reaction.

My story looks like cooking up some prejudice. May be. But investigating and understanding the origin of prejudice helps to understand how society ticks.

By the way: in Germany we have what i would call physical distancing ( 6 ft plus apart), no real stay at home policy. This is also enacted inside stores. So any ramming of shopping carts already tampers with this rule. Same in Cal.?

Finn (author) from Barstow on April 10, 2020:

Well thank you. I tried to be a little funny....but it really wasn't in my character to do what i did.

Lorna Lamon on April 10, 2020:

I really don't understand why people feel the need to panic buy. It makes it so difficult for others who can't afford to do this. I think your reaction, given the circumstances was understandable Liam. I think I will follow the advice of your quote by David Riesman. Don't feel too badly Liam I laughed when I read this article.

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