Health Impacts of Panic Buying

April 6, 2020

You are all stocked up and ready for what may come, but when does the impact of panic buying begin to hurt others in your community?

With shortages of essentials being widely reported in the news since COVID-19 began to spread around the globe, the health impacts of "panic buying" have become illuminated as well. For elderly, disabled, chronically ill, and impoverished Americans, the plight of finding necessary items has become increasingly impactful to their health and wellbeing.

What is Panic Buying?

A quick Google search defines panic buying as "the action of buying large quantities of a particular product or commodity due to sudden fears of a forthcoming shortage or price increase." However, during an international crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the definition becomes much more complex. Media headlines and word-of-mouth warnings of shortages spur the public to take more frequent shopping trips and leads the propensity to "pad" the home with a few extra essentials. An article in The Atlantic reported that its not just people drastically overconsuming or overpurchasing goods, stating that data shows "...small changes in the habits of a minority of shoppers prompted lurid headlines about empty shelves—which then made others, quite rationally, change their behavior."

When repeated by the masses, this seemingly small action leads to large impacts on the ability of stores to keep the items people need regular amounts of in stock - such as bread, milk, dried pasta and rice, sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, pharmeceuticals/medicine, and paper products such as toilet paper and paper towels. In short, it isn't as simple as thinking of a few people hoarding these goods, but the general fear of not being able to find them by many that is causing the unwavering shortages.

How Does Panic Buying Impact Public Health?

When supply cannot meet the demand, these shortages cause a lack of access to products that are commonly available and used by sensitive populations, which include but are not limited to the elderly, disabled, and chronically ill - especially those from a lower socioeconomic status. Some recent headlines highlighting the health and wellness impact of shortages of essential items include:

A common theme seen throughout these articles is that as consumer demand and consumption rises during the pandemic, the impact on public health and wellness increases alondside itIt isn’t only the lack of supplies harming our nation’s most vulnerable, it’s the lack of access and ability to purchase them before they disappear once the items do become available.

In addition to limited supplies, another area of concern is the health threat seen in sensitive populations that must now travel to multiple stores, multiple times to search for essentials - adding more routes of potential exposure and increasing the risk of infection for this demographic. According to an article in USA Today, the largest concern for people shopping in stores is contracting COVID-19 through "person-to-person transmission ... being around so many people who might be carrying the virus."

Combating the Health Impacts of Panic Buying

To combat public health implications, some stores have proactively enacted policies to open earlier for elderly and at-risk populations, helping them navigate the shopping experience with less danger and more access to essential items before the cleaned store opens to the general public. Others have gone with advice to implement quotas on essential, high-demand products to help combat shortages.

As individuals, here are some ways we can all help with the resource shortages and related impacts on our communities and loved ones:

  • Avoid "overstocking" and abide by purchase quotas

  • Try to maintain a shopping pattern similiar to habits prior to resource shortages

  • Avoid buying items that you do not currently need (note that when possible, it is advised to keep around 14 days worth of non-perishable groceries in case you become ill and cannot leave the house)

  • Refrain from shopping and visiting any public spaces if you are feeling sick or have been exposed to someone else who is

  • Follow the CDC Guidelines for the protection of yourself and others

  • Advise others on the tips from this article and others aimed to help restabilize our nation's supply and demand for essential items and medications during the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic

For more resources and FAQ's, visit COEH's COVID-19 Information site