Empty Shelves Do Not Mean “Panic Buying”

I was thinking that I was going to have to write a post like this myself today, but luckily I ran across this letter to the editor at Inforum from NDSU professor of Emergency Management Dr. Carol Cwiak. I can’t count the number of articles decrying the “panic buying” going on ahead of possible COVID-19 quarantines, telling people to calm down – that they only need a sparse few things. Some government officials have been as foolish and uninformed as to say that people only need 2-3 days of supplies for a disaster, in spite of the fact that FEMA and state emergency management officials have been telling people for years now that two weeks or more are necessary, and the fact that coronavirus quarantines are a minimum of two weeks. What we’re seeing in stores is not panic; Black Friday sales in this country have more in common with panic buying than the calm, but widespread, buying we’re seeing.

There have been many media stories and social media posts over the past couple of weeks about consumers’ shopping behaviors related to the Coronavirus (COVID-19). These stories and posts inevitably feature photos of empty store shelves and shoppers with carts filled with supplies such as water, paper products, cleaning supplies and medication. In these stories and posts, the shopper’s behavior has been characterized as “panic” or “hoarding” related to fears about COVID-19. This is a mischaracterization of what is happening, and the use of these terms is not helpful.

These behaviors are more appropriately framed from a preparedness perspective. Typically, guidance from public officials about citizen preparedness is not widely followed, often to citizens’ detriment. Despite valiant preparedness efforts by community leaders over the years, citizens, on the whole, have not historically been great at recognizing and taking ownership over their own risks in the public health and emergency management space.

In the instance of COVID-19, there seems to be an uptick regarding citizen preparedness. There has been consistent messaging surrounding citizen preparedness about the need for households to have food and water supplies for a minimum of 14 days and prescription medicine supplies for at least 30 days; and, apparently people are listening. To public health and emergency management professionals who have been preaching citizen preparedness for years (myself included), this is an encouraging step in the right direction. As for the reasons regarding why citizens are more actively owning their own risk in this situation as opposed to other situations in which they have not adequately prepared, we must look at the confluence of a number of factors.

First, we have become a just-in-time society that affords us the luxury of ordering things online that can be delivered in a period of hours. There is no need to shop for a few weeks at a time when you can think about what you want to make for dinner in the morning and have the groceries delivered in the afternoon. And if you are ordering in from a local restaurant, the process is further simplified by services that will deliver just about everything right to your door in under an hour. Retailers have aligned their behavior with consumers’ behavior and stock shelves and maintain inventory based on the society’s migration to just-in-time service.

Second, we live in an increasingly interdependent and interconnected society served by a complex global supply chain that is vulnerable to disruption. COVID-19 is already disrupting the global supply chain and the U.S. is beginning to feel that disruption. There has already been recognition on the part of some major retailers that they will experience shortages on a variety of items sought by consumers.

Third, as COVID-19 continues its spread at the community level, the workforce will be impacted by employee illness, employee absence due to caretaking of ill family members, employee absence due to lack of child care, and employer efforts to control the spread of the disease (e.g., social distancing, social isolation, healthy workplace policies, etc.). Workforce shortages and challenges will potentially affect both the way businesses deliver goods and services and their ability to deliver at current levels.

Fourth, due to the global nature of this public health event, the option to receive help from other unaffected communities is greatly diminished. While some communities will be hit harder than others with impacts from the virus, all communities will be impacted. This is different than most events citizens are asked to prepare for; in this event, there will not be the same level of capacity to help the un- or under-prepared.

Fifth, there is an increased potential for death with COVID-19 and health care systems will be taxed by both additional patients and workforce reductions. The strain on health care systems will challenge citizens’ ability to access just-in-time health care services.

These factors taken together illustrate some of the potential reasons citizens may view these risks as more salient and important to prepare for than other, more common calls for citizen preparedness. Hence, preparations taken by citizens to have the suggested food, water and medicine supply to prepare their households consistent with preparedness messaging from local, state and national government officials is not hoarding or being done in a state of panic. These are rational efforts by citizens who understand the risk and are taking seriously their role in managing it.