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To have and to hoard

/ 05:03 AM March 02, 2020

For us Filipinos, hoarding seems to be a natural response to disaster. Last year’s string of earthquakes and fears of the Big One prompted the dissemination of to-buy lists that would make any doomsday prepper proud. While LGUs, offices, businesses, hospitals brushed up on disaster management, laypersons took precautions of their own. They slept fully clothed and ready for evacuation, and quietly stocked up on canned goods, first aid kits, and emergency supplies.

In the aftermath of the Taal phreatic eruption last January, Filipinos were quick to hoard masks, some lining up overnight in pharmacies and medical supplies stores. By the next day, the much coveted N95 mask had become a rare and valued item, even in areas only minimally affected by ashfall; regular and surgical masks followed and were also hoarded. Barely had stores restocked when threats of the novel coronavirus prompted another surge of panic hoarding — and it’s not over yet. Unlike ashfall, which affects a fairly circumscribed area, this contagion has a much wider reach.

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As of this writing, news of coronavirus developments seems to get worse by the day. Initial surges of panic were somewhat quelled by health authorities’ assurances, but alarm bells ring as COVID-19 claims more than 80,000 victims from different countries, with first deaths reported most recently in the United States and Australia.

With the news of more cases and deaths comes news of hoarding and panic buying. At first it was just personal protective gear, like face masks and gloves; now it’s food, over the counter medications, disinfectants, sanitary supplies. From Italy, we see social media videos of empty shelves and arguments in good grocer’s aisles. From the United States, we have photos of people lining up to stockpile. From Hong Kong, a toilet paper robbery.

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It could be from fears (mostly unsubstantiated) that supplies from China and other affected areas will be cut off. It could be from fear of eventually needing to be quarantined, fueled by accounts of need and hunger among those who have been forced into isolation. Some have simply fallen in with survivalists, who have made preparing for the worst a way of life.

Whatever the reason, hoarding does align with a position we’ve been unwittingly encouraged to take — that we need to take care of ourselves first, because we can’t trust the powers that be to do it. If you wait to stock on supplies, there might be none left. We’re encouraged not to panic, but at the same time, it’s evident to all that we are not equipped to handle a large-scale disaster, and we can’t trust anyone to provide. Those who can afford to stockpile will do so.

This doesn’t excuse, but does explain, hoarding behavior; we can’t blame people for not trusting their government units to provide sufficiently. We also still can’t allow hoarding on a large scale to occur, knowing the price hikes and shortages that follow; in Hong Kong, for instance, the price of disinfectants and liquid soaps have already risen significantly. In the event of panic buying, retailers ought to take measures to limit purchases by individuals of relevant items like protective gear and sanitary items, as companies abroad have done, and measures need to be taken to halt reselling of these precious goods at ridiculous prices.

The whole ordeal throws into sharp relief how important public trust and communication are in preventing such frenzied hoarding, and how Filipinos — along with mainland China, Hong Kong, and other affected areas — have lost confidence in those very things.

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For more news about the novel coronavirus click here.
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