Canadians wary about the spread of COVID-19 are filling up carts at grocery stores and pharmacies, stockpiling supplies they may need if things get worse.
Several customers flocked to a Costco in Markham, Ont. this week, and told Global News they’re starting to prepare for a potential health emergency.
The store eventually announced it had sold out of bottled water, toilet paper and paper towels.
Costco’s chief financial officer Richard Galanti described the buying frenzy as “off the charts” in a conference call this week.
It was a similar scene at Superstore and other retails across Canada this week.
But is it really necessary for Canadians to stock up on essentials over fears that coronavirus cases will become more widespread? There’s some disagreement on that.
Advice from the health minister
Last week, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu suggested that people consider stockpiling food and medicine.
“It’s really about, first of all, making sure that you do have enough supplies so if someone in your family becomes ill, if you yourself become ill, that you have what you need to survive for a week or so without going outside,” she said.
Other health officials, like Ottawa Public Health’s Dr. Vera Etches, has also said staying well-supplied is good standby advice that’s always applicable — not just in this case.
She said public health agencies warn all the time that people should have provisions for unexpected emergencies, including snowstorms, power outages and even possible pandemics.
On its website, the Canadian government does have a list of supplies each household should have in case of an emergency. It advises that the supplies — which include two litres of water per person per day and food that doesn’t spoil easily — should be stored as an “emergency kit” in a backpack or duffle bag.
What to buy
In the case of COVID-19, specifically, Health Canada says its important for Canadians to have a plan, which entails several steps, including stockpiling some items.
On its website, the government advises Canadians to “fill up” their cupboards with non-perishable food items such as dried pasta and sauce, canned soups, vegetables and beans.
It adds that stocking up on other items such as pet food, toilet paper, facial tissues, diapers and feminine hygiene products, is also a good idea.
For those caring for someone who falls ill with coronavirus, the government recommended having these items on hand: soap, facial tissue, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, paper towels, household cleaning products, laundry and dishwashing detergents, fever-reducing medication, garbage bags and household bleach for disinfecting surfaces.
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The advice is similar to what U.S. officials have recommended.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has issued a specific list of what people should gather to prepare for a potential pandemic.
The list includes a two-week supply of food and water, a continuous supply of prescription medication and non-prescription health supplies like pain reliever, stomach remedies, cough and cold medicines, fluids with electrolytes and vitamins.
It also recommends people get copies of their health records.
However, the government also cautioned Canadians not to rush to stores and buy in bulk, noting that may put a strain on the supply chain. Instead, Health Canada recommends buying a few items at each trip to the store.
“The reason for stockpiling these items is not necessarily because you will need to self-isolate,” the website read.
“Having these supplies on hand will ensure you do not need to leave your home at the peak of the outbreak or if you become ill.”
Some disagreement on stockpiling
Not all officials in Canada say stockpiling is necessary.
Christine Elliot, Ontario’s health minister, said she believes stockpiling is unnecessary, and that people should continue to go about their lives while being cautious.
The province currently has 20 cases of the virus as of Tuesday. The new Ontario cases bring Canada’s total to 30, with nine cases in British Columbia and one in Quebec.
Federal Conservative health critic Matt Jeneroux also criticized Hajdu’s advice on Monday, saying telling people to stockpile can incite a lot of public concern.
“Food and medicine can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” Jeneroux said Monday.
“We’d love to see more transparency in terms of what to expect. I think this is something most Canadians are curious about.”
Stockpiling ‘driven by anxiety’: health expert
Anna Banerji, the director of Global and Indigenous Health at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto, explained to Global News that stockpiling is largely caused by anxiety.
“This current rush for all these supplies, a lot of that is driven by anxiety,” she said, explaining that self-isolation and quarantines aren’t likely even if COVID-19 becomes more mainstream in Canada.
Instacart has reported a surge in demand for pantry items such as powdered milk and canned goods, as well as personal care products like hand sanitizer and vitamins.
Sales of hand sanitizers in the U.S. soared 73 per cent in the four weeks ending Feb. 22 compared with the same period last year, according to market research firm Nielsen. Sales of thermometers spiked 47 per cent during that same period.
Online purchases of toilet paper have nearly doubled and non-perishable items like canned goods rose nearly 70 per cent during the January and February period, according to Adobe Analytics.
“This is a big time of anxiety, and we know the biggest source of anxiety is uncertainty,” said Stewart Shankman, professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Northwestern University in Illinois.
“People are trying to get a sense of control by buying things you really don’t need. It’s a false sense of control.”
Banerji suggested Canadians take a look at what the government recommends all households have on hand and create an “emergency supply kit.”
“I think it’s a good idea to have an emergency supply kit. That’s a contingency plan and it’s something that all Canadians should have, an emergency supply of things like they say: 72 hours’ of water or food, flashlights, matches, those kinds of things,” she explained.
However, Banerji cautioned against Canadians rushing out and buying large amounts of household items at once specifically over coronavirus fears.
“To say to every Canadian, you need to get toilet paper, I think that’s going to cause shortages. I’m not sure that’s necessary.”
— With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press