Posted on: March 21, 2020 at 2:52 pm
Last updated: May 26, 2020 at 9:45 pm

The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything most North Americans have ever experienced.

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While other nations have dealt with war and violence rendering their streets unsafe, or past pandemics forcing them inside, most people in the United States and Canada have never before had their personal freedoms restricted in any measurable way.

For this reason, when cases of the virus skyrocketed seemingly overnight, it sparked a pandemonium across the entire continent. And while citizens everywhere are dealing with the fear and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic in their own ways, there is one reaction that appears to be universal: panic-buying.

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Images of barren grocery store shelves have become symbolic of the COVID-19 outbreak, and items like toilet paper, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and canned goods have become so coveted you can almost use them as currency.

But while most of us were caught entirely off-guard by the sudden severity of the pandemic, there were some among us who got ahead of the chaos and attempted to take advantage of the fear and anxiety that has been gripping the nation.

Read: 20 Coronavirus Myths Busted

Price-Gouging Through Online Retailers

As grocery stores and pharmacies across the country have been struggling to stock their shelves, some third-party retailers on websites like Amazon and eBay managed to amass stockpiles of hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and other highly-prized items. One man in Tennessee was found to have nearly twenty thousand bottles of hand sanitizer in his garage.

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These retailers were then selling these items at massive mark-ups, sometimes up to eighty dollars for a single bottle of sanitizer, and over 150 dollars for an N95 face mask [1].

After receiving backlash from government officials, Amazon began blocking the accounts of retailers who were deemed to be “price-gouging”. 

“Price gouging is a clear violation of our policies, unethical, and in some areas, illegal,” Amazon said in a statement. “In addition to terminating these third party accounts, we welcome the opportunity to work directly with states attorneys general to prosecute bad actors.” [1]

Vancouver Couple Gets Shut Down

Among the hundreds of thousands of accounts Amazon has since shut down, was the account of Vancouver couple Manny Ranga and Violeta Perez, who claims to have resold 100 thousand dollars of cleaning supplies amid the COVID-19 outbreak [2].

In a brief interview outside their Vancouver home with the Canadian news outlet, CTV News, the couple explained that their real estate business has slowed considerably and neither of them can work during the outbreak but need to find a way to make an income.

“The government’s not helping us pay our bills,” said Ranga. “Kids can’t go to school, my kids go to private school. I pay $20,000 a year on private school and they’re not returning it.” [2]

Related: What Do You Need to Buy During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Why are People Panic-Buying?

The chaos that has ensued since the coronavirus outbreak begs one question: why? Under normal circumstances, most people would agree that having hundreds of rolls of toilet paper in your home is unnecessary, so why has it suddenly become the norm?

According to Dr. Steven Taylor, author of the 2019 book ‘The Psychology of Pandemics‘, the reasoning is entirely psychological. He explains that when people are threatened with infection, their sensitivity to disgust increases.

“Disgust is like an alarm mechanism that warns you to avoid some contamination. So if I see a hand railing covered in saliva I’m not gonna touch it, I’m gonna feel disgust. And that keeps us safe,” he said. “So there is a very tight connection between fear of getting infected and disgust. And what better tool for eliminating disgusting material than toilet paper.” [3]

Dr. Taylor also explained that stockpiling these items satisfies the need that most people have to feel like they’re prepared.

“When you’re presented with a pandemic, a big new, scary thing, and the government is telling us that we don’t need to do anything special to deal with it — just wash your hands and so on — people feel the need to do something to prepare. So people are stocking up as a way of preparing themselves. When people do that, it’s inevitable that some people are going to over shop.”[3]

Paul Marsden, a consumer psychologist at the University of the Arts London, describes it as a form of retail therapy, in which we buy things to help manage our emotional and mental state.

“It’s about ‘taking back control’ in a world where you feel out of control,” he said [4].

Sander van der Linden, an assistant professor of social psychology at Cambridge University, argues that while general psychology has definitely played a role, there are also some coronavirus-specific factors influencing peoples’ actions.

Most notably, he describes how the difference between the information from the Whitehouse and that of the CDC confused the public and contributed to the worry.

“When one organization is saying it’s urgent and another says it’s under control, it makes people worry,” he explained [4].

Related: Why Are People Hoarding Toilet Paper? Psychologists Have An Answer

“Fear Contagion”

Van der Linden added that a phenomenon is known as “fear contagion” has also taken effect.

“When people are stressed their reason is hampered, so they look at what other people are doing. If others are stockpiling it leads you to engage in the same behavior,” he said. “People see photos of empty shelves and regardless of whether it’s rational it sends a signal to them that it’s the thing to do.” [4]

Dimitrios Tsivrikos, lecturer in consumer and business psychology at University College London, said that it is the uncertainty of the virus that makes people behave irrationally. 

“In other disaster conditions like a flood, we can prepare because we know how many supplies we need,” he said. “But we have a virus now we know nothing about.” [4]

Both experts agree that the lack of a clear voice from authority figures is what has fuelled the panic to such extreme levels.

Others, however, believe that peoples’ behavior wouldn’t change regardless of the messaging coming from authorities, due to cognitive bias.

“We tend to overemphasize things that are recent and very vivid,” explained Peter Noel Murray, a New York-based member of the American Psychological Association and the Society for Consumer Psychology. “When there’s a plane crash people don’t fly, when there’s a shark attack people think all sharks are killers. That process makes us think that whatever the current thing is, it’s similar to some terrible thing — it catastrophizes our view of whatever this thing is.” [4]

He believes that in this case, people are likely associating the coronavirus outbreak with the influenza outbreak in 1918 that killed fifty million people worldwide, creating an over-representation of fear in peoples’ minds [4].

Amazon’s Response

Since receiving significant backlash from the public, Amazon has stated that it is continuing to monitor its website, and it will “remove offers that violate [their] policies”. Other online retailers like Kijiji have banned listings for a number of these items altogether, including N95/N100 and surgical masks and other health care masks, hand sanitizer/gel, disinfecting wipes and toilet paper [5].

As for the Vancouver couple, Ranga told CTV news that for now, the couple has made the decision to stop selling [6].

Keep Reading: Opinion: Are You Young and unafraid of the coronavirus? Great, Now stop killing people.

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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