As concern about the global COVID-19 pandemic ramps up, people are coping in many different ways. For some this means stocking up on goods such as masks, hand sanitizer and even toilet paper — which has cleared many retail store shelves. Some are even taking the panic buying as an opportunity to turn a profit by reselling supplies at a high markup.
A Vancouver couple made more than $100,000 reselling Lysol wipes on Amazon before the company suspended their account. Many people across the country had been reselling toilet paper, masks and hand sanitizer on Kijiji for at a huge markup before the company banned the practice and removed the listings on Saturday. Similar listings can still be found on Facebook marketplace and eBay, though both companies have said they will crack down on people price gouging in the face of the pandemic.
Despite what social media hysteria may lead people to believe, stocking up more than two-weeks worth of supplies for self-isolation isn’t helpful in protecting anyone or slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Alison Thompson, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, has done a lot of research on pandemic preparedness and public health ethics. She said people need to be focusing more on the social supports they’ll need to self-isolate rather than the material goods.
“Basically while you’re sick, you’re not going out of the house. So things like, do you have someone who can walk your dog? Do you have someone who can take care of your kids? Those kinds of issues will also help reassure people so that they don’t have to panic about falling ill,” she explained in an interview with HuffPost Canada.
James Brander, an economist and professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, agreed that there isn’t a good reason to be stockpiling more than two or three weeks worth of goods right now.
“If you do come down with symptoms that look like coronavirus symptoms or could be, you should self-isolate, self-quarantine for like two weeks. So, you want to have two weeks of supplies in your house so that you don’t have to go shopping for two weeks. So, that’s a pretty standard. But in terms of putting in a six-month supply, I think that’s excessive.”
There’s no reason to panic about shortages either, Thompson said. Mostly because it’s not a “real” shortage. Demand for goods like toilet paper and hand sanitizer has jumped, while the supply has remained the same, but manufacturers aren’t dealing with any issues that would slow production.
“This is just because of the increase in demand. Not really because of a massive disruption in the supply chain… [Retailers] can now anticipate that there will be a run on certain products so they can restock accordingly,” she noted.
Brander anticipates that manufacturers are likely ramping up production, not slowing it down, and because items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer are pretty easy to make, supply will likely go back to normal in the next few weeks once the accelerated production hits shelves. Canada’s largest producer of toilet paper said as much to The Globe and Mail, adding that they wouldn’t raise prices to take advantage of the situation.
Thompson recommended people take the pressure off retailers and suppliers by doing their normal shopping and adding just an extra item or two, so that everyone has access to the supplies they need.
The one actual shortage that is hurting the people on the frontlines of the pandemic is in medical masks — both surgical and respirator ones. Healthcare workers need masks to protect themselves.
“The masks with ventilators are harder, especially the ventilators, which are more important. An ordinary surgical mask is not as good as a so-called ventilator, which is like a mask, but it’s more elaborate and it cuts out more things… so they are harder to make and they take longer to make,” Brander said. “And a lot of those were made in China. And a lot of the parts or pieces come from China. So I think there could be a supply chain issue with the ventilators.”
Thompson also suggested that members of the public avoid buying masks to help ensure they are available to those who really need them.
“The need to mask is really only for those who are actually ill. And they shouldn’t be out and about anyway, really. So there’s really no reason to mask if you aren’t ill because you’re not really protecting yourself and you’re increasing the likelihood that you’re going to touch your face and your eyes are still exposed,” Thompson said.
But is there a reason for increasingly desperate shoppers to turn to people who are cashing in on the panic?
Probably not, unless you really can’t last until stores get things back in stock. For hand sanitizer, for example, using plain soap and water is a better choice when possible anyway, because sanitizer can cause more harm than good when overused.
“If you’re using it regularly, there is a risk that you’re drying out your hands so much that you’re creating these little microscopic fissures in your hands where germs can get in,” she said, adding that it should be an option when there isn’t easy access to soap and water.
“I don’t I don’t think there’s any need to be panic-buying those things from dodgy retailers who are just trying to make a profit off of a nasty situation… Don’t encourage these people to be doing these things or profiteering from a disaster, which is pretty distasteful.”
In terms of what to actually be buying, Thompson encouraged consumers to be prepared in case they fall ill. She said people should make sure they have enough of any prescription medicine they might need, as well as over-the-counter medications that can help them if they get sick, like ibuprofen or acetaminophen for fevers. But again, there’s no need to go overboard purchasing those items.
A psychological response
Thompson said stockpiling behaviours are a very human response and are likely a result of anxiety that can be mitigated if the community pulls together and checks in on one another.
“I think the more that we can reach out to our neighbours and make sure that everybody is working together and can take care of each other… can go a really long way to making people feel a lot less distressed about the situation.”
Brander said that stockpiling can make people feel less helpless in the face of a crisis.
“We’re so powerless, you know, like a little virus can make us very sick and kill us. So what can we do if we want to do something? Well, you can go out and buy stuff.”
I think if people would just exercise a little bit of restraint and use a little bit more rationality instead of panic when they’re making those decisions, we’ll be OK.Alison Thompson, University of Toronto professor
Thompson added that “every man for himself” mentalities will make the situation worse for everyone.
“We know that a coordinated, socially cohesive response is what will get us through this,” she said. Based on past pandemics, Thompson doesn’t anticipate any serious shortages affecting products for the public going forward.
Most shortages in the past have been in hospital settings when it comes to triaging access to special equipment, she said. If and when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, there will likely be prioritized access for first responders and healthcare workers who are within a metre of infected patients, she said.
“Public health has a fine line to tread because we do want people to be prepared, but we don’t want to actually make things worse because we’re cleaning stores of essential supplies,” she said.
“I think if people would just exercise a little bit of restraint and use a little bit more rationality instead of panic when they’re making those decisions, we’ll be OK.”