The law of supply and demand plays a pivotal part in ensuring social and economic equilibrium. Of course, this truth is self-evident; they do not even teach it in business school any more. It is like aesthetics, all you need to appreciate it is an eye.
Problems start when unprecedented events, like the need for social distancing, upset this equilibrium, turning markets on their heads and leaving consumers bewildered. When this happens, as the poet, Ezra Pound, once said, “the centre cannot hold”. As such, consumers have to revisit their settings, meaning that they have to unlearn all that they had learned and, by extension, learn new skills to help them navigate their disrupted social and economic realities.
One of the things we might need to unlearn post haste is that the law of supply and demand only applies to traditional goods and services. This precept was true in the pre-Covid-19 days, when markets were markets and the prices of say, oil, were largely predictable.
Today, the idea of markets has morphed, meaning that two beers and a sausage can cost you more than a barrel of crude. Worse still, buying them can get you arrested — or reprimanded on national television. True, supply chains have been disrupted globally, and not just for goods and services as missionary economists understand them. Who, for instance, would have thought that the supply – and demand — for simple things like handshakes and hugs would ever be disrupted in our time? Or that friends with benefits would demand Zoom calls?
Like an apple falling from a tree, the simple realisation that there is more to markets than just goods and services was brought home as I sat under a tree, taking a breather after a walk at my local sports club.
“Things have become very difficult,” an elderly man who was maintaining social distance on the next bench said, looking in my general direction.
“Very true,” I said, thinking about the workers who have lost their jobs or those who, like me, have had to take a cleaver, I mean pay cut.
“You know even these people have become very hard to find. Everyone is talking about social distancing,” he lamented, his eyes vacant, his voice distraught, his spirit pummelled. His problems were compounded by the fact that the restrictions on movement had also led to the closure of the sports bar, meaning that he could not be supplied with a beverage that could help him drown his sorrows amid the din of a raucous Premier League match.
His lamentations got me thinking. In Kenya, and especially in upwardly mobile urban settings like Nairobi, the consumption of say, meat and related products, is premised on the idea that there will be no social distancing.
It is also made possible by the fact that reality is neatly divided into three mutually exclusive segments; work life, social life and domestic life. Social distancing eliminates this segmentation, meaning that say, for the people now working from home, all three have become one. This is unfamiliar territory for the modern-day worker.
Whereas for the elderly jogger social distancing means a life of loneliness — probably his children are abroad and their mother has visited them — for others, especially those working from home, the pendulum has swung the other way. This has led to an oversupply of people in the household, a corresponding rise in demand for domestic goods and services, and a disruption of the freedoms of movement and association enshrined in the Constitution.
This, by extension, has created a new social and cultural milieu whose demographic dividend will no doubt become evident in the next nine to 12 months as the earth continues to heal. This, however, is a challenge that frontline health workers will manage if they will not be overwhelmed by a sudden increase in cases. The saving grace is that once that period passes, the curve will flatten naturally.
In the meantime, what sociologists and economists might want to be studying are the effects of social distancing on the relationship between urban workers and their rural relatives and dependants. The other day, when I travelled upcountry, a nephew who is yet to start school gave me a suspicious eye, shrugged his shoulders and walked away when I tried to say hello. In the past, he would have come running into my open arms. I could not even sit indoors. Instead I was politely offered a seat outside, and everyone observed social distancing. Basically, I was treated like a mild threat.
I did not take offence because this was the same treatment I had given my long-time friend when I went to welcome him back to society sometime last month. He had gone into 14 days of self-isolation after arriving in Kenya from Germany in mid-March. We sat a respectable distance apart, waiting for the chief and health workers to come and give him a clean bill of health before he could rejoin his own family.
He told us about an elderly neighbour who had also travelled from the US, where she had visited her children. On her return, she found that her husband had exhausted kitchen supplies, so she made her way to the local shopping centre to replenish them.
In the process, she met her friends, fellow Women’s Guild and “chama” members and there were hugs and kisses. Only that her neighbours were not too happy with the supply of these endearments. As soon as she was back home, she received a high-powered government delegation comprising of police officers, the local chief and a health worker who ordered her to self-isolate for 14 days.
“But you know there is no way I am going to die of hunger,” she is reported to have told the officers of the law, implying that in the event that her supplies ran low before the end of the self-isolation period, she would have no qualms going back to the shops for more. In short, she was telling them she would rather break social distancing rules than die of hunger in her hacienda.
What do you think urban folk would have said under similar circumstances?
Mr Mbugua is Managing Editor of the Business Daily and an award-winning author. [email protected]