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Panic-buying during coronavirus pandemic will only help spread disease, B.C. expert warns

Experts say panic buying during COVID-19 could be self-defeating
B.C.'s top doctor is making it clear there is no need to stockpile food and other supplies during the new coronavirus outbreak, and as Kristen Robinson reports, experts say panic buying could actually be self-defeating.

B.C.’s top health officials are calling for calm after recent episodes of so-called “panic buying” in the province over fears of the novel coronavirus, which one expert warns can only help in the spread of the disease.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix took time Saturday to make clear that there is no need to stockpile food or supplies, despite an increase in social distancing measures to help curb the pandemic.

“There are no shortages of goods,” Dix said, sharing similar assurances from the Retail Council of Canada. “What happens on shelves is a result of intense buying, and we are asking people to show moderation.”

READ MORE: 9 new coronavirus cases announced in B.C., majority at North Vancouver care home

Henry echoed Dix’s message, saying retailers have reassured the provincial government that supply chains are strong and shelves are being restocked with groceries and basic necessities.

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“We need to be measured in our approach and get what we need,” she said, “but not to hoard and not to have anxiety-provoked purchasing.”

Dr. Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of British Columbia, had an even simpler way of conveying the message when speaking with Global News on Sunday.

“The world is not going to end if you don’t have any toilet paper,” he said.

Coronavirus: Panic buying and stockpiling at B.C. stores
Coronavirus: Panic buying and stockpiling at B.C. stores

Taylor is the author of The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease. The book explores how psychological factors are important for understanding the spreading of excessive fear, stigmatization, and xenophobia that occurs when people are threatened with infection.

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“It starts with a small group of people who panic and over-purchase at a sense of perceived urgency and scarcity, and it snowballs,” said Taylor.

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When images of people with overstuffed shopping carts go viral, Taylor says it only escalates the situation.

“Often they’re not engaging their brains. They’re looking around to pick up cues, they see everyone else panicking and they have this fear of missing out.”

READ MORE: Feeling anxious about the coronavirus pandemic? Here’s how to take control

The continued hoarding has forced retailers like London Drugs to limit some essential items like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes to four per customer.

“We want to ensure that as many people as possible can get access to the supplies that they need,” said London Drugs pharmacy manager Gianni Del Negro.

The Canadian-owned pharmacy, which has 80 stores across Western Canada, says restocking some high demand products has been a challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic.

New coronavirus has people panic-buying
New coronavirus has people panic-buying

“Things like hand sanitizer, masks, certain vitamins, toilet paper, there’s a number of items right now that we simply cannot get, even keep in stock,” Del Negro said.

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“If everyone is reasonable about this, there will be enough for everyone.”

The government says it makes sense for Canadians to stock up on essentials including non-perishable food items like pasta and canned soups, vegetables and beans, to ensure you do not need to leave your home if you become ill or are forced to stay inside.

The public health website also says it’s a good idea to have extra stores of pet food, toilet paper, facial tissue, feminine hygiene products and diapers (if you have children who use them). But people are encouraged to gradually build up their household supply, instead of making large-scale purchases all at once.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Food shortages unlikely despite Canadians’ grocery panic, experts say

Taylor says those large-scale purchases — especially taking multiple trips to stores — can actually be self-defeating.

“Panic buying increases your chances of getting sick with COVID-19,” Taylor he said.

“We’re being asked to not gather in large groups, and what do you think the panic buyers are doing? They’re gathering in large groups in Costcos.”

Henry has advised local governments and businesses to limit public gatherings to 250 people, which has prompted several arts groups and outdoor resorts to cancel events and shut down operations.

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She said she’s exploring making the order mandatory under the Public Health Act, which would allow those businesses to seek financial assistance through insurance.

—With files from Sean Boynton