No, it's not time to panic (buy), say public health officials on COVID-19 outbreak

Calgary Deerfoot Meadows Costco customers shop for paper products on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. The store was only slightly busier than normal according to some staff. Several stores in B.C. and Ontario have seen long lineups related to COVID-19 fears. Gavin Young/Postmedia

While the global spread of coronavirus continues, public health officials say there’s no need to stockpile excessive quantities of supplies like toilet paper as they prepare for the worst.

In recent weeks, bathroom tissue aisles have been wiped clean at grocery stores across Calgary and other parts of Canada. Locals have scoured the supermarkets to secure large shares of food and water, disinfectant wipes, bleach and toilet paper to ensure their homes are well-stocked should the COVID-19 virus reach them.

Those exposed to others with the illness are urged to self-isolate for up to 14 days, sparking fears in residents about whether they have enough supplies to survive on their own for that long.

“But you don’t want to overdo it either,” said Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of the agri-food analytics lab at Dalhousie University, who believes “panic buying” is natural.

“We all have this inner panic-buying button and as soon as we see unusual things like empty shelves, masks on faces, lineups; it will trigger this will to press this button,” said Charlebois.

“People will buy products they may not even need. But they do it because they feel they need to protect themselves or they feel that a precious resource … is going to be running out. If you feel ill-prepared, you will succumb to this temptation of panicking.”

A shelf for N-95 face masks sits empty at the northeast Calgary Lowes store on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. Customers have stocked up on the masks over COVID-19 fears. Gavin Young/Postmedia

Alison Thompson, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Pharmacy, said unlike previous public health crises, effects of the coronavirus outbreak have played out on social media. That’s led to an “overblown” reaction, she said.

Thompson, who specializes in public health ethics, said panic buying is in large part due to “FOMO” — fear of missing out — when “taken to a ridiculous degree.”

“It’s coming from a place of fear. You see other people doing it so you think ‘well I don’t want to be the guy that’s left without any toilet paper’ so you go out and stock up too,” she said.

“That just adds to the problem.”

To stay prepared, while also ensuring supply chains aren’t depleted, people should instead focus on picking up a couple essentials — like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, soap and non-perishable food — the next time they’re out shopping, according to Thompson.

“I think maybe public health is a little behind the eight-ball in terms of getting their own messaging out there around trying to counteract some of this stuff,” she said.

Empty shelves, normally reserved for toilet paper, are seen empty at the Beltline Safeway on Saturday, March 7, 2020. Sammy Hudes / Postmedia

As Alberta’s tally of confirmed COVID-19 cases rose to seven on Monday, the province’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said she believes panic buying is unnecessary.

“We always recommend that people have about 72 hours’ worth of supplies for any emergency,” she said.

“In this particular scenario, I think people are seeing what’s happening in other countries, maybe getting worried, and then starting to go out and buy large amounts of things. That behaviour, in some ways, creates the problem that they were afraid of. It sort of reinforces that vicious cycle.”

Hinshaw said it’s more important that people consult those around them, such as neighbours and family members, so they have a plan in place in case someone in their inner-circle needs to self-isolate.

“If it’s somebody who was in close contact with a case and they needed to stay home for 14 days, who could help them get groceries? Does their pharmacy deliver medications?” she said.

“There are other ways of getting those kind of products if you do have to stay home for 14 days. It’s not necessary for every household in Alberta to have a 14-day stock of all critical supplies.”


Charlebois cautioned it’s unlikely that overwhelmed grocery stores will experience shortages for any prolonged length of time.

“This is a virus, it’s not a natural disaster. Viruses tend to give time to supply management to adjust,” he said.

“We’ve been talking about this virus for weeks now and as people were talking about the virus, companies were making phone calls and were preparing. A lot of companies were ramping up their production.

“People shouldn’t believe that we’re going to be running out of toilet paper anytime soon.”

Charlebois said that although he was surprised to see toilet paper become the most sought after item on the market, he understands the rationale.

“There are little substitutes when you think about it,” he said.

“You don’t want to go with alternatives.”

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Twitter: @SammyHudes

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