“Pandemic lockdown, leading us away from our ‘wants’ and toward our ‘needs’, is recasting supermarkets almost as a form of public service.”

The latest from America Unfiltered, a joint project of EA WorldView and the Clinton Institute:

About America Unfiltered

The global success of the American supermarket has long been attributed to customer choice. For the 1940s industry pioneer Max M. Zimmerman, the “gargantuan inventories” such stores offered “under Elysian conditions” empowered the individual shopper. The housewives he pictured could follow their impulses, crisscross the giant store, and assemble food purchases exactly as they wished.

Under lockdown in the current Coronavirus pandemic, this old way of shopping is subject to new controls. Limited stock, items per customer limits, and one-way traffic all curb multi-directional freedoms. But these measures are also making other functions visible: functions which lie behind the American supermarkets’ familiar veneer of choice.

Lockdown, leading us away from our “wants” and toward our “needs,” is recasting these businesses almost as a form of public service. Today they eem more adept at meeting generic demands than our individual whims.

During a pandemic, as Cindy Patton suggests, governments work on the basis that people have “abdicated… sovereignty over their own bodies”. Assuming the healthy want protection, and that the unwell want to avoid infecting others, new policy measures require us to pause our individual desires and place our bodies onto a new medical scale of infected and vulnerable, designed to quantify risk.

This approach remains uneven, and does not protect those who perform essential work at low pay. But the impetus of global governance at a time of viral death remains, overwhelmingly, to ensure we stay indoors where possible and monitor human contact when we do venture beyond our homes.

What John J. Fruin called “the human ellipse”, the bubble of personal space which most of us have always preferred to maintain as we move through urban space, has become mandatory and even tangible. Under lockdown, people are drawn to walking in parks or woodland, not just because they want to rediscover nature, but because they crave a chance to drop this shield and forget about infection for a while outside.

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