Looming COVID-19 Lockdowns Raise Spectre of Panic Buying


It is becoming increasingly clear that Mike Pence's efforts to stop the COVID-19 pandemic from striking the United States have been a miserable failure. Rates of infection, hospitalization, and death are rising nearly everywhere. Some of us are still in the first or second wave of the pandemic due to failures on the part of our state and/or local governments to implement the measures recommended by public health officials and a toxic blend of selfishness and stupidity on the part of our neighbors that has prevented them from complying with the recommended measures. Others are experiencing a third or even fourth wave, which certainly looks like the consequence of loosening restrictions prematurely. It seems that relatively few Americans have the patience to make any sort of sacrifice to promote the public welfare, and this is particularly evident when the sacrifices last longer than a few days.

With growing numbers of hospital intensive care units already having reached capacity even though the flu season is barely underway, some are beginning to speculate that we may see a return of lock-downs and other restrictions. Earlier in the pandemic, we saw how these led to panic buying and hoarding of all sorts of things. Are we in for more of the same? I suspect so. I know several people who have already started "stocking up." Interestingly, most appear to be stocking up on items that were unavailable previously. While I can understand this impulse, I see little reason to think that what was unavailable last time will necessary be what is unavailable this time.

Part of what makes this difficult to anticipate was the wide variability of what was in short supply last time. In my area, things like dried beans, pasta, rice, and any products made with tomatoes (e.g., tomato sauce, ketchup, pasta sauce) were impossible to find. On the other hand, meat products were plentiful. For some people I know who live in other regions of the country, this was reversed. As of today, I have no trouble finding toilet paper or soap; however, I still can't find hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes or spray, and all sorts of other cleaning supplies. I have heard from friends in other areas that they've been able to find all this stuff easily for the last couple months.

There's also the fascinating question of whether any lessons were learned last time. I'm fairly confident that many of my neighbors learned nothing at all, but I am thinking more about the companies that produce the products we need and run the supply chains. If there were certain products that were unavailable before but are now widely available, does that mean that problems with production and/or supply chains were fixed and we should not expect the same items to be affected next time? It is hard to say.

I have been disturbed by the sad spectacle of seeing medical professionals in some predominately Republican states holding press conferences to beg their governors to implement public health recommendations. I'm glad they are willing to do this, but I really wish they didn't have to. Every elected official should be expected to value the health and safety of his or her constituents far more than what we are seeing. We are all paying a price for a politicized pandemic, and I hope another round of hoarding doesn't soon become part of that price.