People are hoarding supplies as COVID-19 spreads – but why? And is it useful? An expert weighs in

With the growing fear that COVID-19 is going to make its way onto everyone's doorsteps, people across the world are rushing to stores to gather up any emergency supplies they think they need.

In Canada, people have been lining up in droves to stock up on items like canned food, hand sanitizer and toilet paper.

This comes after Canada’s Health Minister Patty Hajdu encouraged Canadians to gather food and medication in their homes.

"It's good to be prepared because things can change quickly," she said. "It's really about, first of all, making sure that you do have enough supplies so if someone in your family becomes ill, if you become ill, that you have what you need to survive for a week or so without going outside."

UNNECESSARY FEARS

With empty shelves in grocery stores around the world providing a visual representation of the world's panic, the question some people may be asking is: why exactly are people hoarding goods – and what does it say about us psychologically?

"It's amusing; it's predictable; it's interesting," says Samuel Veissière, assistant professor at McGill University's department of psychiatry and co-director of the Culture, Mind and Brain Program. "It’s a primitive protection ritual, protecting your body boundaries from infection. You're giving yourself the illusion that you're protecting your body."

He insists the virus is infecting people's minds – more than it is their bodies. More so, it activates xenophobic tendencies, our fear of strangers and 'the other.'

"We live in times of greater perceived uncertainty having to do with the hysterical scene in politics, but also worries about climate change, so people panic," Veissière said. "Conditions are ripe in all kinds of ways for people to mobilize their attention on some kind of huge panic."

An example: "Crime rates are at a historical low, but fear of crime is up," he states.

TO HOARD OR NOT TO HOARD?

In certain emergency situations, experts note it can be useful to have a week or two's supply of food and water, as well as some medical supplies and any prescription drugs.

But it's not always necessary – or useful.

"It feeds our cognitive bias – an illusion of control. We are always under the impression that we are under control when we are responding to external forces," Veissière explains. "At the core, all humans like to hoard, so it's an attempt to create predictability and regain control."

So, what are the items people are most likely to stockpile?

  • Hygiene masks (which doctors have called ineffective for anyone who isn't sick or who isn't in close contact with someone who is sick),
  • Hand sanitizer,
  • Disinfectant wipes,
  • Canned foods and non-perishables like pasta and rice,
  • Toilet paper and paper towels.

"Go about your daily life and relax and things are going to be fine," Veissière insists. "There's not going to be a shortage of food, there might be a temporary shortage of face masks, but don't forget companies are making money on this. People know how to exploit these vulnerabilities. It's the illusion of scarcity."

SENSIBLE WAYS TO PROTECT YOURSELF

The best way to protect yourself against any kind of virus is to practice basic hygiene.

This includes washing your hands, not touching your face, coughing and sneezing into your sleeves and avoiding close contact with people who are sick.

Experts also recommend immediately throwing out used tissues and regularly cleaning surfaces like toilets, doorknobs and smartphones.

Veissière notes the most important thing is not to stress.

"Worrying does lower your immune system, so actually people would be better off underestimating an actual threat," he says. "Don’t overdo the handwashing because it actually makes you weaker. You don't have to be too neurotic about it."

He argues most of the fears surrounding a possible widespread pandemic are mostly unfounded.

"It's very likely that as the weather gets warmer, it [COVID-19] kind of gets naturally contained," he said. "So, people will for sure forget about it. I predict that by next year, or definitely the year after, it'll be thought of just like the flu."

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