All I wanted was a garlic. One bloody garlic to fry my bloody sawi.
Yet, the supermarket shelves stretched empty before me, the dark green compartment where garlics usually lie is bare. No bloody garlic.
The night before, our Prime Minister dropped a ballsy announcement. Malaysia will be under Restricted Movement Operation (RMO) for 14 days to combat the deadly Covid-19 virus that has, to date, claimed 2 Malaysian lives and infected thousands. There will be a full ban on all forms of mass gatherings and non-essential businesses. Everybody must stay home, other than for emergencies or food (tapao only). Our borders will close. For the first time since World War 2, the causeway between Malaysia and Singapore would slam shut- which means that Singaporeans will have to go without chewing gum for 2 weeks- awww… poor things.
In the supermarket, worried faces power-walked around me, basket in hand, hustling like their lives depend on it. The lines at the cashier were long- so so long- especially for a weekday afternoon. “Mai wan liao! Mai wan liao (it’s sold out)!” gasped a frantic aunty into her handphone, blocking my path. Everywhere, I see face masks. I see trolleys full of wet food, dry food, plus the real treasure- toilet paper.
Speaking of toilet paper, let’s pause to psychoanalyse this intrinsic need to hoard TPs. It’s a phenomena that transcend cultures. Since the virus broke, TPs all over the world are now precious commodities, from Australia to Hong Kong and Wuhan and now, Malaysia.
Once upon a time, the impression was that only westerners hoard loo rolls. Only westerners wrestle each other in supermarket aisles for papery gems because only westerners use TPs to clean the shit from their butt holes. On the other hand, we practical Asians use water
or our hands. Therefore, Asians don’t NEED toilet paper.
So imagine my surprise when pictures of white-lustered-trolleys surfaced.
Steven Taylor, author of The Psychology of Pandemics have some thoughts. This one resonates the most: toilet paper is a means of avoiding disgust, which is cinched to our evolutionary aversion to things that disgust us. Therefore, human logic: the number of toilet rolls in my cabinet is inversely proportionate to my chances of catching the deadly virus.
So, hoard we do. Not just toilet paper but everything else too. Food especially.
This epidermic has brought out the worst in us. Just yesterday on day 1 of RMO, Broady and I made love with my menstrual cup still in. In a flurry of pandemic-anxiety, we completely forgot to remove it. The result was the cup shoved far far in, horizontal with its handle out of reach. It took a SWAT-type efforts to retrieve, followed by a judgemental best friend saying: “so lesson learned?”
But seriously, overcrowded supermarkets full of people panic buying has become synonymous with the RMO. Panic buying is a symptom of humanity’s ugliness. It is a manifestation of our need to be in control. It is nearly the pinnacle of selfishness.
Why do people do it? Because game theory. If everybody buy just what they need, there will be plenty to go around. But when one person panic buys, you better follow suit, otherwise there will be nothing left for you. Eventually, there WILL be nothing left. Who are the losers? Often the old and vulnerable.
The convoy of Malaysians racing back to their hometowns is cause for animosity to many including me, who reminded my Facebook friends to “DO NOT BE A SOHAI”. News portals published pictures of crowded bus stations and gridlocks on the North-South highway. There is no question that many of these travellers are carriers, on a mission to disperse the virus to all corners of the Malaysian peninsula. What were probably virus-free kampungs 2 days ago are probably no longer.
I instantly recognised this phenomena as a reflection of the human psyche. In times of crisis, we yearn for the perceived safety of home, the company of our loved ones. However, to be wilfully ignorant of the risk also speak to our nation’s collective immaturity.
Our values are magnified during this time. We fall back on the principles that were programmed by the environment into our DNA. If we are tak apa and do not take directives seriously, these tendencies are heightened under stress, and we become “SOHAIS”.
I am guilty. I recall a time when water shortage was rampant, and I resolved to panic buy more than 50 bottles of 1500 ml mineral water that I stored in my tiny apartment, next to my bookshelf.
I am selfish, I realised. When coronavirus became a real threat, my immediate thoughts were for my mum who is undergoing cancer treatment. She is as a boomer with preexisting conditions, which is a double whammy in the at-risk category. Then I fret over the impact on the aviation industry, which will directly affect my rice bowl.
Altruism isn’t natural for me. I agree with the theory of psychological egoism. Psychological egoism posits that human beings are fundamentally selfish. My solution to the trolley problem is simple. I will save my loved one. I will pull the lever, not pull the lever- I don’t care. I care only that my loved one is safe. (I know this is besides the point, the assumption is that every person on the track is a stranger. Yet, each time, I think in terms of my loved ones’ safety.) If I were Spiderman in that scene in Spiderman where the Green Goblin forced him to choose between saving Mary Jane or a cable car full of innocent people, I would’ve picked Mary Jane. Con-lan-firm.
Maybe I draw my circle small.
Or maybe it’s the immigrant mentality? After all, I am a second generation Malaysian, my grandfather escaped here from during the war. Although I would spill blood for my country (cross my heart and hope to die), the attitudes and rhetoric carelessly flung around by politicians and nationalists often make me feel like an outsider- an intruder in my own country, where much of the policies are designed to exclude by default. This environment has, over the years, shaped the non-bumi’s mentality, teaching us from a tender age to watch out for number 1, because nobody else will. I often wonder if these circumstances forged my appreciation for the theory of psychological egoism.
I suspect that this selfishness transcends our need to survive. It’s actually the need to survive death. Our immortality project, as coined by Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death. We want to outlive mortality. To leave behind a legacy. Our life must have meaning. This innate desire is also partially why the religion trumpets are louder than ever now. If death is near, we must leave a mark on this world, at the very least by being right. Right about our concept of God. That, and the comfort one derives from the knowledge that there’s a benevolent power greater than us.
We now live during a period that will spill much ink. As a society, we will forever be etched into the collective memory of our descendants. “Grandma lived through the Covid-19 pandemic,” we tell the grandkid perched on our lap, like our grandparents did of their war stories.
I foresee books, thesis, and articles exhausted on this pandemic and the human behaviour. What would compel mass religious gatherings at a time like this? Why would anybody, in the name of religion spray the Coronavirus into each other’s mouths?
Having said that, we must not let the good go unnoticed. Malaysians everywhere have stepped up to provide help to anyone that require assistance during this critical period of RMO, providing food and childcare for tired healthcare personnels that have been holding the fort down while we Netflix and chill in the comfort of our homes. Caremongering Malaysia- Community Response to COVID19 is a Facebook group where young people who are relatively unaffected by the virus help the at-risk elderly during this trying time.
This brings tears to my eyes. For real, guys. Psychological egoist or not, our benevolence is bigger than our adversity.
As long as we don’t hoard the toilet paper. Or panic buy. Or launch a Messiah-type cross country road trip, we’re going to be okay.
Having said that, just leave me one bloody garlic.