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Kelantan showcased how low people can go when greed enters the profit equation. Petrol was being peddled at RM15 per litre during the floods of 2015 when pump prices were more than five times lower. Photo: Reuters

H1N1 influenza is sweeping across Malaysia but vaccines are hard to find. A check with some clinics in the first week of the New Year turned up empty. And if you are lucky enough to find them, they no longer cost RM60 a jab. Be prepared to fork out twice the price.

Double whammy indeed. One death and a thousand over cases of H1N1 later, is this the right thing to do? Price gouging during times of emergencies?

This isn’t the first time it is happening here. According to a study by the Khazanah Research Institute, during the floods of 2015 in the east coast, prices of necessities increased sharply. Kelantan showcased how low men can go when greed enters the profit equation. Petrol was being peddled at RM15 per litre when pump prices were more than five times lower.

If this wasn’t enough, one whole chicken was priced at an appalling RM38. Prices of instant noodles (RM10 per packet) and a bottle of 1.5 litre mineral water (RM8) were equally wicked.

This isn’t just a sad Malaysian tale.

America, the land of plenty, had its own version of a sorrowful story in Hurricane Charley that hit Florida in 2004. There contractors were reported to have charged US$10,000 to clear a tree from rooftops. Generators, the household variety, that are normally sold for US$250 were being hawked for US$2,000. The American newspaper, USA Today, which is known for creative headlines, summed up the sentiment of the people: “After Storm Come the Vultures”.

Charlie Crist, the then attorney-general of the state, put in words to the paper what many in Florida felt then: “It is astounding to me, the level of greed that someone must have in their soul to be willing to take advantage of someone suffering in the wake of a hurricane.”

Doctors and pharmaceutical companies will take exception to Crist’s words. Happily for them, they have the support of free marketeers, or more famously known as neo-liberal economists. For them, it is all about supply and demand.

Their argument is rather simplistic: markets must be free to set the price to enable the flow of resources to their most efficient use. There isn’t such a thing as a just price, they press their case. To them we say two things. Firstly, what Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang has long been teaching and writing about: “The free market doesn’t exist”. Because every market has some rules set by the government. This the free marketeers don’t want us to know. Besides, can we really say that consumers are making free choices when they are placed under duress during emergencies such as a flu epidemic? Isn’t the inoculation against the flu virus forced under such circumstances?

Secondly, economics must accommodate moral limits, as Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel argues in his book titled Justice. Otherwise, outrage at price-gougers may be the result. To Sandel, outrage is the special kind of anger you feel when you believe that people are getting things they don’t deserve. “Outrage of this kind is anger at injustice”.

Malaysia is not without the law to enforce a just price. What it lacks, at times, is the will to impose moral limits on the market.

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