COVID consumption: A cold pill to swallow

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When I set foot in a grocery store for the first time in the month of March, my jaw dropped.

The emptiness was astonishing. Never in my life had I seen the back of a Sprouts shelf. Until that moment, they just seemed like endlessly replenishable voids, spouting cereal boxes and jars of pasta sauce.

In what appeared to be the skeletal remains of the grocery store, I found myself scavenging for whatever spoils of war I could get my hands on. While perusing the eerily naked aisles, it occurred to me that they were ominously reminiscent of an era that haunts modern times from its historical grave: the USSR during the Cold War.

Nearly a decade after the USSR collapsed, I was born in the United States, the epitome of a consumer nation and the sheer antithesis to the USSR’s socialist culture. These were circumstances standing in stark contrast to my mother’s, an immigrant from a country that no longer exists: Russia in the USSR.

Despite the generational and geographical difference, my mother breathed life into the ghost of her country with stories of her home, saturating my childhood with all things Russian. Stories of glorious pearlescent winters, the May 9 parades and the beautiful forests are gems that allow me to celebrate half of my heritage. But the pandemic reminds me of the other stories: those of scarcity.

It’s no secret that there were severe food and product shortages in the USSR, especially in Russia. From my mother’s recollections, sometimes the grocery stores were entirely barren; when food was present, there were limits on how much one could purchase. The shortages extended to goods as well — bubblegum and blue jeans were costly luxury items and often difficult to come by.

At times, American consumerism is almost sickening: disturbing images of customers lugging several shopping bags in each hand, bulging with clothing from fast-fashion brands. I think of my mother, living without a pair of blue jeans until she was in her 20s, and the excess just doesn’t sit right.

Today, consumption is more than an economic activity — it’s assurance of our exceptionalism. The USA is the land o’ plenty. “All-you-can-eat” buffets, drinks “on tap,” “bottomless” buckets of chicken and grocery shelves seem to autonomously replenish themselves to stand testament to its greatness.

We shop to celebrate, and even to mourn. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, George W. Bush famously advised Americans to “get down to Disney World” and to continue “shopping for their families” — to proceed with business as usual.

Our consumer culture is exceedingly pervasive and the proof is in the pudding — or rather, the 20 different selections of pudding. Food shortages and product scarcity are far from the national norm. At least this was the case until a few months ago.

COVID-19 has shaken the foundations of our capitalist existence. The confused scramble for goods by consumers has exposed how global supply-chain networks, previously taken for granted, are far less durable than we previously imagined. Surgical masks, hand sanitizer and even toilet paper are scant. Instead, people are hoarding essentials, abiding by the philosophy of excess consumption in a time when the supply barely covers everyone’s needs.

As journalist Kyle Chayka puts it, quarantine is a confusing time for most consumers because they are reaching to salvage the freedoms lost during quarantine. In rigorous pursuit of our “hedonic motivations,” we continue to consume the same amount. Statistics show that since the pandemic began, consumption of goods hasn’t actually decreased, but our demand has reoriented itself toward other goods.

We are faced with empty shelves and there is no room to mistakenly interpret the emptiness that stares right back. The illusion of inexhaustible resources begins to destabilize when we witness its material effects. As Americans who previously defined their freedom by the number of choices we had, it’s no surprise that the lack of goods is frightening.

The abundant scarcity, however, ought to be humbling for the average American. It ought to remind us that “all you can eat” and “bottomless buckets” don’t truly exist. Proceeding as though they do gives us a false sense of security in the face of inevitable global disasters, such as climate change and this pandemic.

Though some may be reluctant, we should take what we need and only what we need. Maybe it’s time to live frugally, humbly. It is the nature of our consumer nation to present us with seemingly infinite options and choices. So, it’s time to be increasingly conscious of our choices and to ask ourselves, “Do I really need everything that I consume?”

Conscious consumption isn’t a new idea, but it’s more significant now than ever before. As Kristin Wong from The New York Times puts it, we need to research our investments. In other words, looking beyond the price of an item at the social and planetary cost is the first step. Maybe this means less impulsive online purchases. Or maybe it’s simply reducing the quantity of consumption, cutting down our grocery bills and even how many essential items we think are truly essential.

We need to be more conscious of how much we consume and the effects of that consumption. It’s imperative that we expand our concerns beyond ourselves and our families to the others who are impacted by product scarcity. Not only for our sake, but for the sake of our future.

Alexandra Sasha Shahinfar writes the Thursday column on multiculturalism. Contact her at [email protected]