By: Abel Merawi
March 24, 2020 (Ezega.com) -- The COVID-19 global epidemic has continued to be the saddest and most threatening concern of the entire human race. At a time when global action and solidarity is crucial, the inhumane and ignorant measures taken by some people is incomprehensible. Though there are many aspects to consider, I am specifically going to address the case of crisis profiteers in my own country – Ethiopia. As soon as the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Ethiopia, the price of some goods started to increase. It began with medical kits including sanitizers, disinfectants, antibiotics, face masks, and rubbing alcohol. After a short while, the price of consumable goods such as oil, rice, teff, and other crops showed an increase. Finally, following the rumors about plants that can help fight the virus, there was a price increase in traditional and spiritual herbs, fruits, vegetables, and crops.
The sudden inflation had no justification since, for the most part, there was no shortage and no increase in production costs. The only variable to consider is both the rational and irrational panic of the people due to COVID-19. The price increase could be justifiable for medical equipment since there may be a shortage leading to inflation. However, even this doesn’t justify the substantial increase and withholding of medical supplies. Moreover, the price increase on consumable goods and on the various plants considered to be traditional medicines is unjustifiable.
The reaction of traders is common in Ethiopia. It has become a trend in the Ethiopian market for people in various businesses to increase prices whenever there is panic or uncertainty in the society. Plenty of examples can be provided about such disaster profiteers on a small and large scale. The price increase in transportation by taxies when there is a shortage of transportations, at night time and even when it rains is an everyday reality. The price of commodities such as sugar and oil whenever the merchants create a false sense of shortage is also symptomatic of Ethiopian trade. Even if it is always wrong to use social, political and other problems as an excuse for increasing price, it becomes intolerable under the current circumstances.
The lack of foresight and ignorance of such crisis profiteers is absurd because they seem to forget that the spread of COVID-19 will also affect them. When they raise the price of sugar or oil, they are at least profiting without much consequence on them. Despite the consequence on society and politics, the traders were safe. Thus, it was the government and the people who had to take corrective measures. However, it is totally different under the present circumstances. Speaking plainly, the lack of medical kits that could potentially help individuals protect themselves and others, will affect the entire population. The spread of COVID-19 can only be mitigated when each and everyone has access to and properly use sanitary and medical kits. But the ‘short-termism’ of such merchants makes them assume that they can be safe as long as they protect themselves, and in the midst of the crisis make profits. This should not even be considered as selfishness at the expense of others since their action emanates from a sort of blindness fueled by profiteering. I wonder if they even care about themselves, their family and loved ones! In such times, traders should focus on the adequate provision of the necessary products. If they are not willing to do it for others, they should do it for themselves.
The ill-informed action of crisis profiteers is different from the global problem known as disaster capitalism. As Naomi Klein discusses in her book ‘The Shock Doctrine’, disaster capitalism occurs when producers and multinational corporations use natural and man-made disasters as an opportunity to make a profit. It takes various forms ranging from influencing the politics of foreign countries to enforce privatization, from which only they can profit. It also occurs when producers intentionally create shortages so as to cause inflation and make a profit. The basic theory emerged from psychologists who concluded that people will be confused and do anything when faced with a problem that creates a shock to the point of losing their usual temperance. Although the case of some Ethiopian suppliers is mostly different from disaster capitalism, the basic assumption is the same. In both cases, the assumption is that people will be forced to do what they normally would not do when they are shocked or panicked. COVID-19 has naturally shocked the whole world and it is normal for people to panic. This has created an opportunity for traders to make profits. The basic difference between the crisis profiteers and disaster capitalists is related to production. Currently, it is not the producers but the suppliers who try to swindle the people. This makes me wonder even the necessity of such suppliers, because globally there are mechanisms in place for creating a direct link between supply and demand by cutting out the dealer.
In this particular case, the measures taken by the Ethiopian government are praiseworthy. It would be questionable to have the government intervene in the market during normal situations. However, we are now dealing with a global crisis, which justifies government intervention. Currently, it has banned and penalized close to 200 traders who were found unjustifiably increasing the price and creating false shortages. It may even be necessary for the government to act as a supplier because the products, especially the medical kits are of vital use. It is also necessary to provide basic medical equipment for free since the consequence is much graver if left unchecked.
The fight against crisis profiteers should not be entirely left to the government. The people must do their part by reporting such actions to the proper authorities. Simply informing will not be enough since past experiences show us that the authorities might be corrupt and look the other way by taking bribes. Thus, it is important to follow up on the measures taken on such suppliers. More importantly, people can take collective actions by discriminating such traders and buying from honest traders in order to encourage and support them.
In the end, it is worth remembering that this is just suppliers and not producers. Discarding them can easily be achieved since the fight is not against producers who can create a shortage but with traders that are supposed to act only as a link. We can also learn and use the technological advancements of other countries. Setting up other supply lines by modernizing the system through technologies such as direct supply lines from producers with their own retail shops and introducing online shopping can help to maintain balance. In the end, we should seriously realize COVID-19 is a global problem that requires the solidarity of every human being.
Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for Ezega.com. He can be reached through this form.
Other articles by Abel Merawi:
You Can Make a Difference
Rule of Law for a Free Society
The Origins of Law
Determinants of Market Value: Part II
Determinants of Market Value: Part I
Your life Matters Too
Manifestations of Artistic Expression
Achievements vs Natural Accidents
The Grip of Sacrifice
Injustice is Never Justifiable
Education Demands of the Future
Job Security, Life and the Unpredictable Future
The Shift From Racism to Culturism
Sacrificing Meaning for Power?
Culture and Market Forces
Seeking Cosmic Justice
National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations
Are We Truly Free?
Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy
Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group
The Value of Work
The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System
Intellectuals and the People
Where Are Our Pathfinders?
The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders
The Truth Behind Humanity
The Seven Virtues
The Seven Deadly Sins
What is the right thing to do?
Building National Identity
Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change
Living the Truth as a Human Being
Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others
The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them
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