March 11, 2020

Understanding the Coronavirus-Related Hoarding

empty toilet paper rolls

As we move closer to acknowledging that the COVID-19 outbreak is not going to go away any time soon (despite Mike Pence's efforts or the blatant denial of some Trump-supporters), I've been seeing countless variations of the same theme on Twitter:

Why are people stockpiling toilet paper, hand sanitizer, soap, cleaning supplies, bottled water, and whatever else? Are they really that stupid?

Probably, but I think there are better explanations. First, most of us living in the U.S. haven't been through anything like this before. This is new to us, and we don't know what we're doing. Some people are stocking up on the same supplies they are used to stocking up on before a hurricane (e.g., bottled water) because that is what is most familiar to them. Others are probably just asking themselves what they would really hate to run out of if all the stores around them closed for several weeks (e.g., toilet paper). Still others are trying to buy the items that keep showing up on lists of recommended supplies put out by our mainstream news media.

Second, one must consider the gross incompetence of our president's administration. It is hard to know how much of what little we have been told about the virus is even accurate. In addition to the fear and desperation this spawns, it leaves people susceptible to misinformation, conspiracy theories, and woo. If someone isn't already out there peddling homeopathic remedies for coronavirus (and they are), we can be confident that they will soon. And we can be equally confident that some will fall victim to their con. With trust in the government at an all-time low, others will swoop in to fill the void. Some people are hoarding things that don't make sense to the rest of us because they think those things will help even if the science says otherwise (e.g., masks, most of the disinfectant wipes, some hand sanitizer).

Third, we need to acknowledge that fear, especially when it occurs in the context of a pervasive lack of empathy for others, often leads people to behave in ways that may look stupid and selfish. We don't like to talk about this, but one motivator of this sort of hoarding is to make sure "I get mine" before anybody else has the chance to get theirs. Some may plan to profit from their hoarding by re-selling supplies to desperate others; however, I think that most are just making sure they get theirs without considering anybody else. I probably don't need 180 rolls of toilet paper, but it isn't like it ever goes bad so why not buy out the store before someone else can do the same? It doesn't have to make sense; few things driven by fear are going to make sense. If you listen closely to some of those engaged in this sort of behavior, you will hear them come revealingly close to expressing their true feelings: "I got here first. Fuck everybody else."

As you start adding up these thoughts, you begin realize how badly this sort of thing can backfire. If my hoarding means other people cannot find soap, they won't be able to wash their hands as directed. They are more likely to get sick as a result. More sick people means that the rate of spread will increase. As that happens, it becomes increasingly likely that I'll get sick. Those of us who get vaccinations almost always focus on how it keeps us healthy, but it also helps keep everyone else healthy. This is one of those cases where thinking about our neighbors and their health pays dividends instead of just isolating ourselves and waiting for things to calm down.

Like it or not, most of us are part of a global community. Few of us live on remote and completely self-sustaining compounds. We are part of a community, and that means that the sort of "community spread" we've been hearing about affects us, as does the health and well-being of our neighbors. Maybe we should remember that amidst our hoarding frenzy.

I had a sobering thought following Hurricane Katrina when I was without electricity, running water, and gasoline. There are an awful lot of guns out there. How long do you suppose you will be able to keep your stockpile of food and water to yourself if others decide they'd like some of it? Buying what we need seems like a better option to me, especially if it prevents others from feeling more scared and desperate than is necessary.