The other night, in a restaurant, two friends of mine confessed, in the face of growing alarm over the coronavirus, to having indulged in a little light stockpiling. Bright-eyed, if not absolutely zealous, they spoke of tinned haricot beans as the future, and of fresh orange juice as (RIP) the past. After this, someone made a joke about scurvy, at which everyone laughed rather too loudly. But the moment swiftly passed. Our dinner – beef with roast potatoes and hispi cabbage – had begun arriving at our table in quantities generous enough that our talk had suddenly started to seem a bit ludicrous.
On the way home, I laughed about this: how we love a drama. If I could have remembered it, I would have hummed the theme to Survivors, the 70s TV show about a plague that has spread across the world thanks to air travel. But the next day, it was my turn to start worrying about vitamin tablets and shelf lives. At Ocado, Britain’s biggest online supermarket, shares had apparently jumped thanks to the fact that so many customers were placing “particularly large” orders. Delivery slots were selling out. Suddenly, I was receiving the message with zero distortion: basically, only a fool would risk having to go into a 14-day quarantine without ready supplies of – we’re talking about Ocado here! – organic couscous and those new-fangled bags of frozen avocado I’ve seen advertised.