At the precipice of a global pandemic, the one thing that the world unanimously agreed upon was the socio-economic strife that lay ahead of countries halted in their place for an indefinite period of time. COVID-19 presented itself as a mysterious force that was as unpredictable as it was—and continues to be—lethal. In stark contrast stood market trends, economic growth, production, exports, imports, medicinal development and the like—each existing in accordance to a specific pattern. If studied thoroughly, these patterns are always predictable and deviations always foreseeable.

As such, it was no surprise that the global stock market experienced dramatic falls for the first time since 1987 within the first few months of the pandemic. The escalating risk of a recession was nurtured by declining GDPs—together constituting about a 3 percent shrink in the global economy according to the IMF. Unemployment figures skyrocketed as corporations cut costs to remain functional. Subsequently, without sources of income, the rate at which people succumbed to poverty became unprecedented; Pakistan alone experienced a spike of 40 percent. These dire ramifications of the pandemic were just as quantifiable as the odds of them escalating with time. Thus, the world fights two battles at once; one is on a governmental level as states scramble to keep their economies afloat, whereas the other is a personal struggle each individual must manoeuvre through in order to survive.

If we concern ourselves with the matter of individualistic survival, we will notice that here is where human nature kicks in; when faced with difficulty, the needs of the self are always prioritised over another’s. This can be attributed to the inherent greed present within the human DNA which aims to secure long-term survival. The inability to go against the grain is also what has prevented us from creating egalitarian societies. Instead, we live in circumstances where inequality breeds envy, envy breeds greed and greed enables self-preservation.

Observe the trend of hoarding in Pakistan; not too long after the lockdown in March, commodities like sugar, oil, vegetables and pulses were sold at exorbitant rates when compared to their prior prices—wheat being the latest target of this inflation. All in all, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) of Pakistan has increased by 8.6 percent in a matter of months. The root of the problem is the practice of creating artificial scarcity by suppliers which ultimately results in high induced inflation. To exemplify, take the example of wheat; Pakistan missed its wheat procurement target by 20 percent this year. Upon investigation, it was discovered that 5 million metric tons was being illegally stockpiled by hoarders looking to exacerbate demand by shortening the supply—exaggerating prices as a result and boosting revenue at the expense of the public. Unaffordability as a byproduct of such tactics is, thus, inescapable.

In similar fashion, numerous cities experienced fuel shortages recently. While factors like decreased exports due to international transportation being at a standstill are significant, according to the Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority’s (OGRA) report, ‘Hoarding and Black Marketing by OMCs’, nine Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs) like Shell, Total PARCO and PSO have been found guilty of hoarding petroleum products by falsifying reports to deflect suspicion. If their sales figures for the first 10 days of June are compared to last year’s, a 52 percent increase can be calculated. In a time when complete lockdowns have reduced people’s mobility, it is impossible for consumption to be that high. Therefore, it becomes undeniable that hoarding has become an economic trend followed meticulously in Pakistan.

One would assume that this is as bad as it gets, but there’s more. With the outbreak of a disease like coronavirus, medicinal products and equipment have become vital precautionary essentials. Acting as barriers for the transmission of the disease, as well as facilitators of recovery, it was only natural that hoarding would manifest in one form or the other. Starting from the first confirmed cases of the virus, prices of facemasks shot up by as much as 500 percent—from Rs70 per box to Rs1200 minimum—as a paranoid public made purchases in bulk. Next, sanitisers, gloves, Dettol and isopropyl alcohol disappeared off the shelves. Further along, within the next two weeks, equipment like thermometers, oximeters and oxygen cylinders experienced a shortage. Those who were in dire need had to resort to the black market where prices were jacked up by as much as 300 percent.

Astonishingly, as promising reports of drugs like Tocilizumab, Actemra and Dexamethasone being effective forms of treatment were made public, pharmacies were emptied out and supply ran extremely short. Even antibiotics, anti-allergies and vitamin supplements were absent from the market. Each individual who bought in abundance aimed to create their personal stockpile in the case that they tested positive and required these items for their recovery. In the end, it is the common man who bears the brunt of such circumstances as they are left isolated and incapacitated in all regards—economically, medically and socially. What’s ironic is that if the roles were reversed, they would have taken the same steps because human action, as evidenced, are geared towards self-protection.

What needs to be understood is that behind each corporation, producer, supplier, cultivator and phenomenon is a human being who dictates decisions. As such, certain predispositions are bound to seep in whether it’s a supplier hoarding everyday produce, companies hoarding fuel or people hoarding medicinal commodities. Wherever opportunities of self-gain present themselves in life threatening situations, humans always incline to act greedily, in their own favour. In other words, we are opportunistic. That explains why recovered patients prefer to sell their plasma instead of donating it—a few millilitres, enough to treat two critical patients, is worth hundreds of thousands of rupees. The rich do this to ensure maximum accumulation of wealth whereas the poor are forced into it for the purpose of survival, if not persuaded by the greed accompanying this ‘get rich quick’ scheme.

As bleak as the status quo seems, not all has failed. In recognition of hoarding being a major problem, the government has passed an ordinance that renounces the act and states it to be illegal. Accordingly, punishment of violations is a non-bailable prison sentence of 3 years and a fine equivalent to 50 percent of the value of the hoarded goods. Additionally, the provincial government of Punjab is looking to monitor the sale of drugs used for the treatment of the virus through the Chief Drug Controller (CDC). Even measures like regulating the sale of medicines through prescription-only purchases are being proposed. If such procedures are strictly implemented and readily followed, exploitation could decrease substantially as laws exist to counteract human bias. Then, perhaps the public can experience the benefits of communal living where each stakeholder looks out for the other.

It is easy to succumb to self-preservation centred greed but in times like these, empathy is a trait that can protect countless lives and is, therefore, valuable. Only through a sense of community can the country overcome this global catastrophe; debilitating developing countries like Pakistan specifically.

Zahra Kazi

The writer is a member of staff. She tweets