Veteran media fearmongers have spent the last two years predicting the imminent doom of a society deprived of hairspray and baked beans in some sort of great retail apocalypse, the likes of which our materialistic society hasn’t seen since the Great Depression. But according to these chroniclers of collapse, this latest promise of famine is no mere Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020.
According to CNN business writer Nathaniel Meyersohn, the coming wave of retail doom will make all previous shortages (real and imagined) look like child’s play. The would-be anthropologist has divided our lives into a pre-pandemic “Before Times” and the current New Normal, while reassuring the virus worshipers that Covid-19 and the disruptions it brought aren’t going away any time soon.
However, Americans have been hearing Chicken-Little-esque stories of food shortages since the pandemic began, which has not exactly inspired confidence in the words of the authorities any more than the predictions of millions of Covid-19 deaths within the first few months of the virus – calculations based on a faulty model.
This time, however, the sky may actually be falling. While some aspects of the prophecies shared by Meyersohn and his ilk are self-fulfilling – stores putting up Christmas displays earlier than ever are signaling to customers that they’d better do their shopping now, triggering dozens of stories about how festive goods are flying off the shelves at an unheard-of rate and sending shoppers into a panic – others are not so easily put to bed. Suspicious toilet paper shortages can be triggered at the drop of a hat, even though it’s one of the easiest and quickest consumer products to manufacture, and the onset of another TP Tsunami can be reliably interpreted as a signal that a country is to begin panicking immediately.
The problem this time around, however, appears to go deeper than neurotic marketing fails and cheap appeals to the fight-or-flight response. Despite throwing up industrial-strength information blockades, narrative managers are no longer capable of covering up logistical snarls like truckers’ strikes, both in the US and in its Five Eyes allies.
Some drivers’ unions oppose the mandatory vaccination regime imposed upon them by President Joe Biden, on top of the usual list of grievances, and they are joined by factory workers like those at the Kellogg Company in demanding better working conditions. With both corporate and rank-and-file workers convinced they have leverage against the other, the power struggle is likely to continue for months, to the disadvantage of the American people.
While it’s tempting to write off these manmade “shortages” as part of the seemingly endless array of pandemic-related fictional catastrophizing, they are very real. Photos of empty shelves at Walgreens, Rite Aid, Stop & Shop and other American drugstore and grocery chains are all over the internet, depicting sometimes puzzling absences – do potato chips really have such a high resale value? – and giving rise to a multitude of theories.
Not all the absences are silly, of course – the vitamin aisle is frequently picked clean for reasons that should be obvious during a disease outbreak – but the disappearance of kids’ toys from Walgreens shelves in Brooklyn, along with similar runs on non-perishable goods like bug spray and Ensure shakes, indicates there’s more at hand than needy locals stuffing their pockets out of desperation.