Opinion: Stop panic-buying during COVID-19

Tara Kapoor, Senior Staff Writer

Toilet paper? Gone. Hand sanitizer? Nowhere to be found. Grocery stores, usually full of shelves brimming with products, are struggling to keep up with panic-buying demand amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

It may be tempting to grab nine bottles of hand sanitizer or dump the remaining toilet paper rolls into your overflowing cart. However, such thoughtless purchasing in desperate times creates a scarcity in essential products and leads to more panic-buying, perpetuating a vicious cycle.

“People wanting to stock up on necessities is understandable,” Stanford economics professor Pete Klenow told the Paly Voice. “But collectively, it reminds me of a bank run. This is when a solvent bank can become temporarily out of cash as depositors rush to withdraw their money before other people do.”

Current infrastructure was created to provide supply matching predicted consumer behavior during normal times, not to support everyone racing to stock their homes. In these critical times, the Food and Drug Administration acknowledged reports of supply struggling to meet the increased market demand.

And unfortunately, this practice leaves little remaining for those who fall under high-risk groups for the virus and truly need the protection to preserve their livelihood.

In an effort to combat this gap in the supply chain, the government is taking action, Palo Alto High School history teacher Steve Foug said.

“We are seeing the legislature pass legislation for COVID-19 relief for all Americans to help pay for essentials during the crisis,” Foug said.

But government covering the cost alone cannot solve the lack of available products.

Local stores such as CVS in Town and Country have been subject to the wave of overconsumption, running out of staple items like hand sanitizer and toilet paper on a daily basis. Many of Costco’s shelves, usually stacked to the ceiling, are empty. Both stores, among other giants including Walmart and Target, placed per customer limits on certain key items.

“To stop bank runs in the wake of the Great Depression, we instituted deposit insurance,” Klenow said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have such a simple solution to stop runs on household staples.”

Instead of falling into the trap of continuing to buy loads of unneeded items, it is crucial that we leave enough for those in need. Hospitals lack the masks and protective gear they need to adequately treat and quarantine patients while maximizing safety of healthcare workers, according to World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the use of protective wear including goggles, medical masks, gloves and gowns. Yet, with diminishing supplies due to high public consumption, hospital staff are subject to policies such as one mask per day, compromising the effectiveness of our healthcare system.

Furthering the issue, price gouging — the practice of hoarding large quantities of a high-demand product in order to sharply mark up the price and resell to others who cannot find any other place to buy it — is a common occurrence, capitalizing on times of desperation.

Large-scale culprits of price-gouging practices are publicly under fire, but our distress as community members is leading us to act in a similar manner — frantically stocking up on scores of items we don’t necessarily need. And when this greed causes sick patients to suffer, it is clear that it’s time to make a change.

So, next time you make the trip to the grocery store to pick up necessities, do just that: pick up necessities. Avoid launching into panic mode, buying items just because they are not yet sold out.

With a plateau in purchasing as such and an increase in supplies, Klenow said he hopes to see the current challenges in supply-and-demand balance out.

“I’m hopeful, however, that we have plenty of capacity to ramp up production to replenish stores before long,” Klenow said.

If we all take only what we need, we can contribute to fuller stores for the entire community — especially for those who need it most — and relieve our panic all the while.

“[Panic-buying] should subside and domestic supply chains should get going again,” Foug said. “I have confidence that the U.S. economy can respond in time to what is needed.”

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in the midst of the Great Depression, there is nothing to fear but fear itself.