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When society doesn't gel

The panic buying of hand sanitiser is a demonstration of how people want to feel safe even if it means others have to go without, says Sam Hancock


Clean break: a person using sanitiser

Clean break: a person using sanitiser

Getty Images/iStockphoto

A person washing their hands

A person washing their hands

Hand sanitisers in Boots

Hand sanitisers in Boots

Clean break: a person using sanitiser

The panic buying of hand sanitiser has become a worldwide pandemic in itself. According to recent data by consumer knowledge experts Kantar Worldpanel, global supermarket sales of alcohol-based hand gels have risen by 255%.

This is hardly a surprise, considering the constant messaging from bodies such as the UK's public health agencies that we are being "relied on" to clean our hands and that we are expected to do so for roughly 20 seconds at a time.

Lisa Blackman, a media and communications professor at Goldsmiths University, has been studying panic and contagion for 20 years.

She says hand sanitiser, like toilet roll, is linked to disinfection and therefore provides the means to engage in practices that enable people to feel like they are decontaminating any potential pollutants.

"Given that viruses are invisible and pass from person to person, they threaten a clear sense of a self-enclosed border or boundary, which is important to western individualised notions of the self," she explains.

"This is threatening and might create feelings of abjection. Practices where people feel like they are reinstating a false sense of privacy and boundary are important to manage feelings of anxiety that might be provoked.

"I say a false sense of privacy and boundary because what viruses like coronavirus show us is that we are all fundamentally connected and dependent on each other."

It isn't just sales of hand sanitiser that have risen either. Some hospitals in the UK, US, Malaysia and central America have reported a spike in thefts of bacteria-killing gels.

Northampton General Hospital told BBC News that bottles were being taken from patients' beds and dispensers ripped off walls, with bosses saying the gel was "disappearing every day". They have even had to limit the supply on wards.

Some shops have been caught up-selling bottles to make a considerable profit from anxious customers as they try to protect themselves from catching or spreading the virus.

Estelle Botbol and Marina Baz, both postgraduate students at Imperial College in London, were shocked to find that the price of a single bottle of hand sanitiser had risen from less than £5 to just over £40 at a pharmacy on High Street Kensington in west London.

"I'd been to 10 or 20 shops by that point and was desperate because nowhere had any (sanitiser) left in stock," says Botbol, who is worried about catching the virus through her nail-biting habit.

"When I saw the little bottle in the middle of the counter, I was so happy. I joked to the woman behind the till, saying, 'Please don't tell me it's £100 or something'. She laughed and said, 'No, don't be silly. It's only £40.99'."

"We thought we'd misheard her say £14.99," her friend and housemate Ba says, "so I double checked, but she confirmed she had said £40.99, so we left the shop empty-handed."

Botbol and Baz, originally from Paris, laugh as they recount the story, explaining that the woman behind the counter insisted they look at her computer screen so they could see she "really wasn't lying".

Unsurprisingly, the inflation trend is common. Over the weekend, the Edinburgh Evening News reported that a Pound Savers Homestore in the Scottish capital had been on the receiving end of a backlash for charging customers £6.99 for a single bottle of gel.

Similarly, a tweet by James Deegan went viral last week. He filmed shopkeepers at Canons Park Newsagents, in Edgware in north-west London, who were charging £10 for a four-pack of toilet roll which was usually sold for £2.50.

Suddenly, the thefts of hand sanitiser from hospitals don't seem so shocking.

Panic buying seems to highlight the demarcation in Britain's class system, as it is implied that essential supplies are available exclusively to those with money.

Pharmacists have even been forced to ration sanitisers to avoid bulk buying.

Jamie Harkin, who lives in Co Tyrone, says the new rules have been tough on him and his family because they're not only buying supplies for themselves but his "at-risk" grandparents too.

"My friend and I heard our local Boots was selling hand sanitiser by request only, so we went into the shop to ask and were told it was strictly one per person," he adds.

"I completely understand and agree with why shops are doing it, but my grandparents are in the high-risk category, so we had no choice but to go back 20 minutes later, find a different cashier and buy two more bottles."

Hand sanitiser has been popular in the UK since it made the move from hospital wards to high streets in the 2000s, although it wasn't until 2012, when stores such as Superdrug and even WH Smith began reporting between 10% and 30% surges in sales of the gel, that it became a staple accessory in many pockets and handbags.

At the end of last year the global hand sanitiser market was reportedly worth £1.02bn, but its popularity and, generally, effective use should not mean it replaces soap and traditional hand washing.

Manal Mohammed, a medical microbiology lecturer at the University of Westminster, explains that hand washing with soap and water is "far more effective" than using alcohol-based hand sanitisers.

"Research has found that the detergent effect of soap and the friction of washing work together to reduce the number of microbes on our hands, as well as the dirt and organic materials," she adds.

"Sneezing or coughing into your hands also requires more than just a pump of hand sanitiser to disinfect them.

"This is because if your hands are contaminated with mucus, the hand sanitiser might not work as well because mucus acts to protect microbes."

That message seems to have been all but lost on the general public, however.

The same data that shows a colossal surge in hand gel sales around the world also shows a surprisingly small increase in liquid hand soaps (7%) and household products (10%) being bought by customers.

Clearly, the 'panic' part of 'panic buying' has taken hold.

However, for hand sanitiser to be in any way effective at killing germs, it must contain at least 60% alcohol.

And yet, says Mohammed, a lot of the brands we're seeing sell out or be rationed in UK shops don't even meet this criteria.

So why are people buying gels en masse? The main reason seems to be a fear of the unknown, says Blackman, and the ability of hand gels to ease people's concerns.

"This kind of buying temporarily relieves some of the anxieties people are feeling, but ultimately the capacity to feel safe during this crisis has to be managed by good leadership and a feeling that people are not on their own," she explains.

"Sadly, the Government appears to be reinforcing the message that you are on your own and that the Government won't be stepping in to manage what is a structural issue to do with systems that are not sensitive enough to respond to spikes in demand."

Emma Kenny, the resident psychologist on ITV's This Morning, says supplies such as hand sanitiser can help people feel more assured.

Because families are afraid of isolation - "and want to protect one another" - they develop a strong desire to be over-prepared, which helps them to feel more psychologically settled than if they were in a position of want or need.

"Fear makes people act more selfishly. Tribe protection becomes almost instinct-based," Kenny tells me. "Looking after the people that you love and care for becomes paramount and the usual altruism becomes a secondary concern."

Ultimately, says Blackman, people need to feel safe "that they can at least cover basic health and hygiene needs". The panic buying seen across the UK suggests this isn't the case.

Hand sanitiser is clearly more a symbol of that safety than it is a desired product.

Amidst the madness, however, what's important to remember is this: for all the reminiscing of what life was like BC (before coronavirus), there will be a life AC - and that's worth remembering when you're next in Sainsbury's, staring at empty shelves, wondering where else you can go to find your favourite bottle of Carex.

For NHS guidelines on how best to wash your hands, visit https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/hand- hygiene

Belfast Telegraph