The hoarding of the haves, the punishing of the poor

This week’s invocation of emergency regulations on the provision of essential food and the subsequent price controls on sugar and rice have been a long time coming, as prices skyrocketed out of control. Whether the regulations will have the desired effect despite the Government now authorising the seizure of hoarded stocks remains to be seen. Many of our essential foods and services have for many years been the playground of oligopolies, which have grown in power and influence, and apparently, also in their propensity to set aside scruples to bend the laws of supply and demand.

The ethics of stock hoarding and price manipulation amid a pandemic aside, there must also be equal blame lain upon a government that has watched on while its people have faced the unbearable rise in the cost of living and repeated shortages, most recently of gas and milk powder. Squeezed as we are by a foreign exchange crisis, it is a pity that one-and-a-half years into a pandemic, we still don’t seem to have figured out our supply chain constraints to get healthy food onto the tables of our most vulnerable.

It is true that the Government has been in an unenviable position; since the first lockdown, it has been forced to support six million households with rations and cash – handouts that the economy just cannot afford. Covid-19 has exacerbated the food security issues in many countries like ours, and the first and worst-affected have, as always, been the poorest and most vulnerable. This is the group for whom rising prices of essential food go hand in hand with the decimation of their income, forcing severe cutbacks in both the quantity and quality of the food consumed.

In every way, Covid-19 has stifled the most vulnerable; the inequalities of privilege have been a worldwide lesson in this pandemic. The burden of disease has been far greater among the poor not just because of their lifestyles and living conditions, but also because, tragically, they have been thrown into the frontlines of life during a pandemic. In a global move harking back to feudal times, those with privilege locked themselves down early on in the pandemic, while non-medical “essential work” continued. Agriculture workers, factory workers, cleaners, and delivery people plied their trade – because they had to – while others cloistered themselves in their sanitised cocoons interacting with the world through the safety of their screens.

The frontlines may be hailed for their courage and commitment, but in putting the blue-collar worker out to work on those essential frontlines, we have also subtly built a stigma surrounding the disease. People continue to be wary of the poorer among us carrying the coronavirus – that their vulnerabilities make them more likely than our own friends and family to spread a disease that may sully the purity of our homes. And that’s just one example of the expanding chasm between the rich and the poor.

The thing is, Covid-19 has exacerbated inequalities among countries and people, among races and classes, between genders and age groups. Where the poor of the world face greater threat of food shortage and disease exposure, women battle the deepening burden of expanded household responsibility while children everywhere grapple with an education system turned on its head. Meanwhile, the wealthy cash in on a soaring stock market! Countries and governments, especially ones in the Global South, have had to face glaring inequalities in their access to much-needed vaccine supplies and even critically needed medication.

There’s little point in criticising the selfish motives of a handful of powerful businessmen who choose to hoard essential foods in Sri Lanka, when the most powerful global voices for human rights choose to hoard vaccines and play geopolitics with the distribution and acceptance of available vaccines. A fair and equitable world has always been a pipedream, but Covid-19 has made it an even more fanciful prospect. If anything, this pandemic has made every one of those inequalities grow in capacity and consequence.