April 01, 2020

Ideology and the Grocery Store

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

In recent weeks, grocery shortages have been common around the country as people stock up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I have had a hard time finding staples like garlic, potatoes, and dry beans at my usual local grocery store. What can the concept of ideology teach us about the run on food and paper products?

Ideology is a system of beliefs that appear normal and natural to a particular group. Rather than a fancy way of saying “idea,” ideology is a grouping of ideas that seem unquestionable and are often taken for granted. These systems of beliefs that we live within often seem to be “human nature” and beyond the need to think about critically.

In the United States, as in all societies, we have particular dominant ideologies that shape the way we view the world. One of the dominant ideologies is individualism. We value individual expression, individual freedoms, and the rights of people to make decisions for themselves. We often have trouble seeing that a larger social structure (formed by social institutions like government, the economy, education, religion, and so forth) shape our individual decisions and the range of choices available to us.

These ideological lenses through which we view the world are not necessarily good or bad as a whole. Individualism often helps us promote individual rights, protecting the needs of the individual from the larger majority (in theory, at least).

But sometimes individualism can be limiting, like during a global health crisis when thinking beyond our own needs can be challenging. That brings us to the grocery store.

Items like toilet paper and other paper products started disappearing from shelves weeks ago, as did disinfectant and hand sanitizer. Going to the grocery store with surgical masks and gloves is also quite common now. It might seem logical through the lens of individualism that people would want to make sure they had supplies to hunker down at home, and to protect themselves from the virus.

However, if we view this issue from a more macro perspective, we can see how individualism might not serve us so well. Grocery shortages have drawn more people to public places more frequently to try and acquire basic goods. Even if you didn’t panic buy toilet paper and food, you will eventually need both and have to spend more time in public as a result. This enables the spread of disease to continue.

But what if you wear a mask and gloves? Won’t that protect you? Maybe, but there is currently a critical shortage of protective equipment for health care workers. While you might encounter someone with the virus at the grocery store, it is nearly certain that hospital workers will when they go to work. If they are not protected, they might get infected and be unable to treat sick patients, and may even spread the virus to more vulnerable people who are more likely to need medical attention than the rest of the population.

Understanding public health requires us to look at more than just our own health to understand how large-scale patterns shape health, well being, and the economy. When the outbreak first started, many of my students wondered why it was a big deal; if most people had just mild to moderate flu-like symptoms, why should we be taking such drastic action to prevent it when the flu affects and kills more people and we don’t act similarly to prevent its spread?

Not only is the mortality rate for COVID-19 higher, but because there is no vaccine to slow the infection rate or lessen its severity, it affects the population in a short period of time, overwhelming hospitals. When infections happen all at once, producing a steep rise in infections, our health system does not have the resources to treat everyone, or at this point even test everyone who has symptoms.

By now you’ve heard about attempts to “flatten the curve,” which requires us to think beyond the individual and understand how spreading out the number of infections over time is more manageable for the health care system. It also means a greater likelihood that those who need critical care will receive it.

A public health crisis helps us to see the limits of the lens of individualism. Just like the concept of heard immunity, which reminds us that when the community is healthier we are healthier as individuals, this global crisis is an example about how our health is interrelated to the health of others around us.

This is not to say that Americans cannot think beyond the individual. The grocery store Trader Joe’s featured signs outside and inside that stated, “A great way to show kindness to our neighbors is to not purchase more than two units of a single item. We are all in this together.”


It's very good post which I really enjoyed reading. It is not everyday that I have the possibility to see something like this.

Article with a deep knowledge and well-staged. I have visited your website. It is very interesting and impressive. Thanks for sharing with us such a great article. I want to come again. Please update.

People should not hoard food, I think the government has enough food to feed the people when a pandemic is complicated.

Hi Karen, I would like to let you know that your post is very informative. Kindly post an update.

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