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Preparing for COVID-19: An epidemic is not a hurricane. Panic buying harmful

Uploaded: Mar 3, 2020
Emergency preparedness advice in the US is strongly oriented toward hurricanes. No surprise, because hurricanes are the most common major disaster in terms of people affected, damage done and size of the region affected. Major floods close contenders, especially if you include the flooding component of hurricanes. The problem is that guidelines for these categories of disaster are reused in the guideline for other categories with little seeming thought or awareness of the differences.

Without having lived on the Atlantic or Gulf coasts, I have been through two major hurricanes: The first caused a massive flood and the other had winds well over 120 mph. In 25 years, the town I grew up in experienced two 100-year floods, a 500-year flood, and a 1000-year flood (from a hurricane).

I was here for the ^1989 Loma Prieta earthquake^ and subsequently worked on local emergency preparedness. While some earthquake-specific items were added -- for example, dealing with collapsed buildings -- a lot was simply cut-n-pasted from guidelines for hurricanes. For example, there is a very different pattern of damage to the transportation network, and the shapes of the areas most affected are very different. Most importantly was the difference in impact on the drinking water system. Hurricanes and floods routinely cause sewage treatment plants to overflow and also wash industrial and agricultural wastes -- example: excrement from industrial-scale pig farms -- into the rivers and then into the flood plain and buildings located there. In contrast, earthquakes tend to break some pipes -- part of the water delivery system, but not the water sources themselves.

In a hurricane, there is massive damage to the infrastructure and you may be cut off from the outside world for many, many days. In contrast, it is unlikely an epidemic will damage the infrastructure, although it may degrade from a shortage of people to do repairs. All the advice related to not having electricity for your refrigerator or power for your stove are irrelevant for the predicted scale of COVID-19.

Water: The only likely cause of not having drinkable water coming from your faucet is if the water purification plant is unable to replenish its supplies in a timely manner (I don't know how much they have on-site). So, do you think that buying many cases of bottled water is going to be useful for COVID-19? If you want to be prepared to disinfect tap water, having a fresh bottle of chlorine bleach is more practical (web search will find alternatives).

Food: If a hurricane is bearing down on your city, it makes sense to stock up on food, even when you already have survival food: It may be weeks or months before the local grocery stores are back to operational, or it may be the warehouses that supply those stores, or the roads may need to be repaired before deliveries can read your store.

This is not the situation during an epidemic. The stores, roads, and warehouses are still functioning. Employees working overtime can cover for those out sick. Although the current estimates are that 40-80% of the population will eventually be infected, they won't all be sick at the same time. It is currently estimated that 80% of those infected will not have serious symptoms.

So how much should food should you be buying? One recommendation is to buy enough in each trip to the store in order to stretch out the time before you need to go again, thereby reducing the number of opportunities to get infected. And you want to have enough so that if an item is out-of-stock during one shopping trip, you can either work around its absence or have a backup that you can use.

A widely linked-to ^Twitter thread by Dr. Emma Hodcroft (Swiss) "If the virus is everywhere, what's the point of preparedness?"^ characterizes this approach as "putting some slack in the system" so that it can better respond to the inevitable stresses.

What's the harm of stocking up? Excessive buying will create shortages in your local stores, causing your neighbors to have to go to more distant stores for what they need. Being in more stores increases your neighbors' chances of becoming infected, and thereby bring the disease back closer to you.
Reports are that "many" Costco's in Washington state, this area and southern California have been hard hit by massive buying.

I can't go to store if I am quarantined/self-quarantined: I would hope that you have some friends and/or neighbors that you could message get the needed items on their next trip to the store -- or give you some of theirs -- and settle up accounts later.

Face masks: We are being asked to not buy face masks because medical personnel have a greater need and because they provide little if any protection from becoming infected. While a mask provides little if any protect from breathing in the virus, it has been argued that it helps keep people from transferring the virus from their hands to their mouth and nose. The counter-argument is that your eyes are also a primary infection pathway, that adjusting the mask can result in you touch around your mouth more often, and that having the virus elsewhere on your face reduces the distance it needs to travel to your mouth, nose or eyes. This counter-argument holds that you are better off with frequently washing of your hands, and being careful of what you touch.

A mask being worn by an infected person does provide some protection for those around them by trapping germs from their lungs by the fibers absorbing the droplets carrying the virus. As the fibers absorb more droplets, they become less effective. While I have seen this process described, I haven't seen any pointers to where this is quantified.

----The media is selling fear----

The "news" media has its standard outlines and narratives for events, and every now and then they get caught faking parts of it. For a hurricane, it is traditional for someone to be reporter to be speaking while seeming to lean into ferocious winds, until two guys saunter by, and then you realize that the vegetation shows that the wind is coming from the opposite direction (^Hilarious New Anchor Pretending to Be Blowing Away in Hurricane Florence - YouTube^). Or that you spot that the reporter is kneeling to create the impression of his being in waist-deep water.

Another of these tropes is frenzied shoppers emptying shelves. In Romania, a TV crew was caught taking items off the shelves to provide the desired visuals. Apparently it didn't occur to them that the photos and videos being taken by the actual shoppers would wind up online.

In this region, the story of empty shelves is already being featured. Those particular instances may well be true, but, without balance, those stories likely induce others into counter-productive panic buying.

Can we expect this to change? No. Fear sells and is great for ratings. Useful advice doesn't have great imagery and is a drag on ratings. Cynicism? Yes, but at my age, it has been well-earned.

----My other blogs on coronavirus (COVID-19)----
"Is Palo Alto prepared for a Coronavirus outbreak?", 2020-01-30.
"Coronavirus (COVID-19): Underappreciated Unknowns & inexplicable failures", 2020-02-28.
"COVID-19: Critiquing News Releases: What's missing + teachable opportunities", 2020-03-19.

An ^abbreviated index by topic and chronologically^ is available.

----Boilerplate on Commenting----
The ^Guidelines^ for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", do not be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.
A slur is not an argument. Neither are other forms of vilification of other participants.

If you behave like a ^Troll^, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.
Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by ‘nobody told me that, nobody knows that’, a resident of St. Claire Gardens,
on Mar 3, 2020 at 6:13 am

"An epidemic is not a hurricane. Panic buying harmful"

Alas, since so many are ill-prepared for disasters, this event is having many check their supplies, batteries, reviewing emergency procedures, etc.. Residents, municipalities through our top leaders.

Posted by Atlantic coaster here, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Mar 3, 2020 at 2:42 pm

You hit the nail on the head!!! Since I do live in a hurricane-prone area, I do keep a nicely stocked emergency kit- for the exact reasons you mentioned- a temporary disruption in the availability of supplies. (I also hate being in the frenzied crowds fighting for the last jug of milk every time a hurricane is predicted.)

But I have to admit, even I, in the last week have started to panic, "do we have --enough-- of everything in our kit and should we have more so we can limit our trips out in public?"

In the face of some scary unknowns, it is easy to get caught up in the panic. Thank you for this post and putting things in perspective.

Posted by CeCi Kettendorf, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Mar 3, 2020 at 4:56 pm

My neighborhood association has been encouraging people for years to prepare for earthquakes. Much of the preparation for the virus is also advantageous for hunkering down if a major earthquake disrupts transportation, water supply, food supply, medical access...on and on. There is an irony here in that the first safety event we have had required masks; it was the poisoned air from the fires, not an earthquake. Our neighborhood association was prepared; we keep N95s on hand to distribute, so we are ready for the next bad air days. I am sad that fear is the motivator to preparedness, but at least this virus promotes modest movement towards preparation for emergencies. If it is fear of a virus, bad air or the Zombie Apocalypse, the upside is preparation. I repeatedly tell people that whatever the emergency, we may well be all on our own so must be prepared and prepared to care for one another. Our association mantra is,"WE ARE AL IN THIS TOGETHER!"

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Mar 4, 2020 at 11:47 am

It isn't panic buying. It's stocking up before those hoarders get it all.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Mar 4, 2020 at 1:22 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Curmudgeon

The "get it all" is the core of the fallacy -- it is assumes that there won't be restocking of stores. The presumed shortages are limited to those stores during the small time window until the next delivery from the warehouses.

While it is very good to make sure that you have supplies on hand and a modest cushion, the massive buying being pictured in the media is harmful to the larger community (as described in the blog).

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Mar 4, 2020 at 1:44 pm

"The "get it all" is the core of the fallacy"

Agreed. The quip is from a Herb Caen [Google him] column of the early seventies, when shortages and hoarding were all the rage. I've always loved it's Berra-esque irony and had to share it.

Seriously now, we'll be fine so long as the staffers who keep The Grid operating are at their posts, and toast otherwise. If they can show up to work, so can staff in the supply/distribution chain. Thus no reason for panic, except to not miss out on the shared experience.

Posted by 3 dot censorship, a resident of El Carmelo School,
on Mar 4, 2020 at 7:06 pm

ahhhh... Herb, and the advent of 3 dot "journalism" ... Did he invent it, or just take credit? All the washbag stories.

I had an uncle who's life goal was to get a mention.

Posted by Cat Mom Leonorilda, a resident of Midtown,
on Mar 5, 2020 at 12:06 am

Cat Mom Leonorilda is a registered user.

Thanks for the very practical and much-needed advice... enjoyed the "humor" about the TV crew emptying the shelves to create greater panic.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Mar 5, 2020 at 12:27 pm

"Herb, and the advent of 3 dot "journalism" ... Did he invent it, or just take credit?"

I don't know. His hero was Walter Winchell, so take a guess. Caen often referred to himself as an old man in his dottage. We need him now more than ever.

OK, Doug. Back on topic.

Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Mar 5, 2020 at 3:53 pm

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North, on Mar 4, 2020 at 11:47 am

>> It isn't panic buying. It's stocking up before those hoarders get it all.

I used to hear something like this quip before Herb Caen (re-?)popularized it, but, it is eternal. It takes a lot of panic to buy bottled water in Palo Alto (of all places). The hoarding reminds me of the hoarding during WWII. One thing people discovered is that all kinds of things have a finite shelf life, not just the obvious meat, dairy, produce. Back then, e.g. canned food, natural rubber car tires, gasoline. Not to mention obsolescence. Panic buying often results in costly waste down the line.

Now, about those face masks. Some of us have year-round uses for them, what with dusty projects and all, as well as seasonal uses (I guess fire season is year-round now, ... , speaking of dottage.) The good ones seem to be -always- in short supply and -always- expensive. Here's hoping that panic buying of masks now will result in a massive surplus and some price cuts down the road before smoke season begins. I'm beginning to entertain the possibility a conspiracy to reduce the supply of masks. If they really must be that expensive and scarce, maybe some VC can risk some money on something actually useful-- a startup to manufacture cheaper high-quality masks. (The VCs must be running out of ideas for new phone apps by now.) The manufacture of everything else in the panic seems to be scalable already, but, face masks appear to be an exception. Why?

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Mar 7, 2020 at 9:12 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

My biggest concern is not the spread of the virus, which is now inevitable, but rather our lack of community preparedness for the social strains that will accompany that spread.

We need to start today to strengthen, and sadly in most cases to create, strong neighborhood support and communication networks, create protocols to deal with (perceived) food and supply shortages, create informed confidence that will reduce the probability of panic and, most important, demand that our local leaders start leading.

The County Health Officers will provide medical guidance but our Mayors, Fire Chiefs and Police Chiefs have to become very visible with clear messages so that we the people have confidence that someone is actually in charge.

Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Mar 8, 2020 at 6:49 pm

It IS panic buying, and it's asinine. You don't need three months worth of toilet paper. Or bottled water. Water still comes out of the tap.

Posted by BunkerVille, a resident of another community,
on Mar 10, 2020 at 10:06 am

Panic Buying is counterproductive and based on hindsight.

Preparedness (for natural disasters, nuclear war, the apocalypse etc.) is not.

We have a year's supply of both preserved & fresh food available in the event of the apocalypse. The fresh food is dated, consumed within a reasonable 'everyday' time frame & the replaced/restored in the bunker/basement refrigerator. Three AC generators will supply the electricity for all of our needs providing we conserve on fuel (as needed).

While/when the world is ending, we will be enjoying grilled (or pan fried) rib eye steaks for about a week or two...not sharing or letting others into our abode as they should have planned better.

Our friends in Utah have done the same.

Posted by C, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Mar 10, 2020 at 5:25 pm

> Much of the preparation for the virus is also advantageous for hunkering down if a major earthquake disrupts transportation, water supply, food supply, medical access...on and on.

Exactly. I'm disappointed that this column didn't take CoVid panic as an opportunity to review measures we should take in an earthquake -- or, as we *should have* learned from Northern and Southern California, a wildfire. If anything, face masks are even MORE important in a fire, because the majority of fire deaths are from smoke inhalation, through damage to the respiratory system. The column says we don't wear goggles during this CoVid emergency, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have goggles, because they obviously will protect your eyes in a fire from smoke and burning particulates. Earthquakes are a particular hazard since broken gas lines cause files, and broken water lines prevent fire engines from putting them out.

On the lighter side, what's with the toilet paper shortage??? Go buy a travel bidet on Amazon for under $12. Takes care of a few health issues down there, too! :P

Posted by ‘nobody told me that, nobody knows that’, a resident of St. Claire Gardens,
on Mar 11, 2020 at 6:39 am

> I'm disappointed that this column didn't take CoVid panic as an opportunity to review measures we should take in an earthquake

Winnah, winnah, chicken dinnah.

> the massive buying being pictured in the media is harmful to the larger community

Looks like we *barely* survived the 'massive buying' binge. Who knew Costco and Amazon could handle high volume?


So... 3-dot: did yer uncle make it?

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