Preparing for COVID-19: An epidemic is not a hurricane. Panic buying harmful | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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By Douglas Moran

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.

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