Mises Wire

Your Supermarket Overlords: Why Barbados Needs a Voluntary Quarantine

On Wednesday, April 1, the acting prime minister of Barbados, Hon. Santia Bradshaw, came on the local news station to announce a mandatory partial shutdown to combat COVID-19. She announced that starting April 3, all “nonessential” businesses would remain closed until midnight April 14.

I watched this address with my girlfriend, and we both were scared. Not so much for the coronavirus, though it is a great concern to us. We had recently begun disinfecting all of our groceries, throwing our clothes in the wash, and showering every time we came home. We were terrified because St. Lucia had recently announced a 24-hour shutdown with no warning to its citizens.

We sat with dread and watched the acting prime minister give her address, in fear of a similar lockdown. We were relieved when she announced that grocery stores would remain open, in spite of her scolding of the naughty Barbadians who continued to shirk the already imposed curfew of 8 p.m.

“It could be a lot worse,” I told my girlfriend once the address was over.

It Gets Worse

We both decided that the following day (Thursday, April 2) would be a good time to supplement our pantry and to get last-minute alcohol (one thing deemed “nonessential,” though funnily enough the subsidized sugar factories remain open for business).

On Thursday morning, we prepared to leave for our grocery run. Looking at our phones, we noticed our group chats talking about further government restrictions. The acting prime minister was tightening the noose on the country again.

Instead of restricting business hours and enacting a late-night curfew, the government abruptly decided that all grocery stores needed to be shut down until further notice starting on April 3, the following day. Now we only had two days to prepare for a shutdown that we were not warned of in advance.

Watching the eight-minute press conference, the acting prime minister coldly informed us that since the night before, people had continued congregating in large numbers outside of supermarkets and that the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 had exploded by one whole case.

She informed us that with the blessing of a group of supermarket owners and shopkeepers she could no longer delay mass business closures. With the exception of what are known as village shops, all supermarkets would be closed until midnight April 14, with the possibility of that date being extended (for the record, no one is quite sure what the definition of a village shop is).

To recap, bureaucrats spent weeks preparing for their response to COVID-19, then abruptly changed their minds twenty-four hours after making their public announcement.

Individuals in our group chat expressed solidarity with the government:

“Bajans didn’t exercise common sense and now we in this piss pot.”

“If they had just stayed inside, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

You see, “we” were behaving very badly, and “we” had to be punished for our own safety.

Nevermind the thousands of citizens who had followed the rules and refrained from any unnecessary contact. The majority were being punished for the crimes of the minority.

Now the righteous fury of the people was directed not at the rulers who had doled out punishment without any semblance of a trial, but at their own people, who were unfairly imprisoned. The people were taking the side of their own kidnappers.

In the midst of all this, did anyone stop to question why large amounts of people were gathering outside of supermarkets at the risk of their own health?

Perhaps it was because of justified widespread panic that the government would shut everything down. Which they did.

My girlfriend and I left our home on Thursday with this edict hanging over us, and we came upon a grocery store with a line spanning hundreds of feet out the door. It took over two hours to get what we needed.

We decided to go out one last time the next day. It was the last day that supermarkets were allowed to be open, and people were camped out with lawn chairs. We waited for about an hour before bailing on the line. People who stayed and gutted it out were still waiting once the curfew took effect at 6 p.m., so the government graciously pushed it back to 8 p.m.

So much for trying to prevent large gatherings.

Lack of Transparency

“Oh, they gave you plenty of warning!”

This is what my girlfriend’s coworker said recently during another work-from-home day. Their company had proactively shut down the office weeks ago but continued operating with everyone working remotely.

I agree with her coworker. There were plenty of warning signs before the complete shutdown. Fearing the worst, we had been slowly building up our frozen food and pasta reservoirs for a few weeks. It never feels like enough, but we weren’t completely unprepared once it happened (full credit to my girlfriend).

However, to pass this off as the government being transparent is charitable at best. The fact that we were scared that the government would do something drastic does not justify their actions.

If a scantily clad woman walks into a biker bar that has a bad reputation, do we blame her for being harassed? Again, some of her friends might question her judgment, but what moral authority do complete strangers have to shame her? Do we lecture her and take the side of the biker gang?

What about the people who have not prepared for this shutdown? Do we make fun of them and shame those who continued to exercise their own free will? Do we shrug at the people with no choice but to break curfew due to economic circumstances? Do we blame the unwilling prisoners of an unjust war?

For those who would protest, and claim that the government had no choice but to make us prisoners in our own homes, here’s what we can reasonably understand from some common pieces of information:

1. The Barbadian government met with various supermarket and business owners, and the acting prime minister claims that they were in unanimous agreement that large gatherings of people outside their supermarkets was an immense concern.

If the supermarket and business owners were in such unanimous agreement and everyone was so concerned, why did we need the government to tell everyone to close down? The whole process could have been resolved quickly and efficiently, and without relying on the day-to-day whims of bureaucrats.

Private companies were already shutting down before any government decree. Do we really need to be told to isolate in a global pandemic?

2. People are outraged at those who broke curfew.

The fact that people break curfew just proves that smaller, decentralized communities are better at organizing than a few top-down planners. We don’t need a dictatorship telling us what to do; our neighborhoods can do a much better job of self-regulating.

The neighborhood I currently live in has a group chat that effectively polices intruders who come into the neighborhood. If someone suspicious shows up and starts walking around, peering into people’s yards, you had better believe that multiple people will sound the alarm and someone will call the police. Our small neighborhood works together to isolate during times like these far better than any government decree.

If you are truly worried about getting infected, then you need to become the dictator of your own property. From there, you can expand your isolation zones to wherever you see fit, and things will naturally sort themselves out. Thousands of small communities will have a better understanding of what works for them than one centralized government.

Even in a small country like Barbados, a one-size-fits-all approach to isolation and pandemic preparedness is not the best option.

People who live alone in the country do not need to be imprisoned in their own houses, whereas if you are walking around a densely populated neighborhood touching everything in sight, your neighbors might have something to say to you.

3. The minister of health and wellness, Lt. Col. the Honourable Jeffrey Bostic, MP, assured the Barbados press that they had more than enough medical facilities and respirators prepared for the worst-case scenario of a massive outbreak.

A large portion of the country was self-isolating before any curfew was set. Unfortunately, not everyone is afforded the luxury of being able to work from home. Given that the government claims to have the capacity to treat a large-scale outbreak, there should be no reason to punish someone who weighs the risks and decides to go about their normal daily life.

Instead, the public at large seems to be content with the mass destruction of small businesses and reliance on welfare checks. People will always behave irresponsibly on some level, but do we want to punish ourselves for the poor behavior of others?

There has to be a better way.

Instead of Forced Closures, Why Don’t Businesses Have “Pandemic Insurance”?

It was recently reported that Wimbledon will be collecting $141 million in pandemic insurance claims. This will not restore all of their losses, and not every business will invest in pandemic insurance. Still, businesses tend to do the right thing when properly incentivized, and insurance could provide the motivation.

Under pandemic insurance coverage, businesses could be liable for any injuries caused to customers and employees for remaining open during a pandemic. Insurance companies could stipulate that money will be withheld in the event of negligence, and they could also perform testing to insure a safe working environment, probably much more efficiently than government departments such as the CDC in the US. Grocery stores and other business owners could negotiate with their insurers to determine what practices are deemed safe in the event of a pandemic. We were already moving towards a delivery-only model, and in that case insurance companies might give a partial payout to supplement workers’ salaries and allow small businesses to avoid bankruptcy (as opposed to massive government bailouts with our tax dollars).

The Government Eventually Walked Back Its Strict Closures

On April 7, Hon. Santia Bradshaw changed her tone and announced that grocery stores would be allowed to open back up for delivery and pickup only. This was in response to “concerns” raised in the two and a half days that the shutdown lasted.

It turns out that a population of 385,719 needs more than baked bread and canned food, at least if you want to keep them happy.

The best way to handle the coronavirus in Barbados is not through a top-down dictatorship. Small business owners and neighborhood communities have proven much more effective at responding to the needs of the people, and no amount of political grandstanding on local news stations will solve our problems.

The economy is not an arbitrary experiment to be poked and prodded. The economy is us, and we don’t need to be forcefully manipulated to do the right thing.

Coronavirus isn’t the only killer out there: unemployment, crime, and suicides are a threat as well, and all of these increase during economic depressions. Individuals need to decide for themselves what’s best for their families and communities. A group of bureaucrats in a room has thus far proven disastrously ineffective.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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