It happens every time something terrible seems to be imminent. People panic and buy stuff that will hopefully help ward off the bad thing, or at least allow them to survive while the bad thing takes place around them.
It’s happening now, all over the world, in the face of Covid-19. Target employees in Richmond, Virginia, said crowds have gotten “crazier by the day”; Costcos, Home Depots, and Whole Foods have sold out of items like bottled water, Clorox wipes, and hand sanitizer. Shoppers are stocking up on canned goods, surgical gloves, masks, toilet paper, and long-lasting food staples like peanut butter and soup in preparation for the threat of quarantine, as more businesses and schools encourage people who feel sick or have recently traveled to high-risk countries to stay at home.
To be clear: None of these people should be hoarding food and supplies; experts say it’s a practice that’s at best misguided and at worst harmful to people like health care workers and sick people who actually need them. And yet, when we panic, we spend.
I’ve been watching all of it on my phone — the empty shelves where the tissues were supposed to be, the pallets of water bottle cases being wheeled away by a single man, the lines snaking outside stores — and I sort of can’t stop. On TikTok, the #coronavirus hashtag is full of people in the US and abroad filling grocery carts with applesauce and dried pasta, and “two per person” signs in the hand sanitizer aisle (one guy ended up scoring the last bottle, adorned with a sparkly Cinderella). People are showing off their quarantine stockpiles with the same fervor as they would their Forever 21 clothing hauls on YouTube. There are even several coronavirus songs that serve as theme music.
People have long prepared for hurricanes, for Brexit, for Ebola, for the nebulous threat of a “doomsday,” which for some Silicon Valley billionaires is when the robots revolt against the ultrarich. There have been TV shows about the most ardent panic purchasers — in 2012 the National Geographic channel had a reality show called Doomsday Preppers that was apparently popular enough for a spinoff called Doomsday Bunkers — and subreddits where posters discuss topics like “What is your ideal SHTF [Shit Hits the Fan] wardrobe?”
Shit has already hit the fan in many parts of the world. In Wuhan, Huanggang, and Ezhou, China, more than 50 million people have been quarantined since late January. Italian officials have locked down 11 towns and more than 50,000 people in the northern part of the country. The World Health Organization has estimated that Covid-19 has killed about 3.4 percent of people infected, with the global death estimate at more than 3,200.
In America, more than 160 cases have been reported and 11 people have died. No one knows when shit will truly hit the fan here, or what it would even look like, which is part of what makes it so terrifying to some. It is also what makes watching other people stockpile toilet paper and hand sanitizer at Costco so oddly reassuring.
Most coronavirus prepper videos on social media are meant to be lighthearted — they tend to take place in areas not yet widely affected by the disease, where stockpiling toilet paper isn’t a necessity yet — but at their core, they convey a macabre truth. Should some sort of mandated quarantine actually happen in the US, with millions of people unable to leave their homes, as they are in Wuhan, only the people who could afford to spend hundreds on dry goods (who are more likely to be the same people who have access to health care and are allowed to stay home from work) would be less at risk than everyone else. The videos are akin to the memes making light of the devastating Australian fires or the Iran bombings: nihilist quasi-jokes as a means of coping with horrifying truths.
There is also the fact that Americans shouldn’t be prepping that much at all. Timothy Brewer, an epidemiology professor at the University of California Los Angeles, told Vox’s Terry Nguyen that “the kind of things you should not be doing is going out and stocking up on face masks, gloves, and basically hunkering down for Armageddon.” Not only are masks mostly ineffective in preventing respiratory disease, but the panic-buying is causing a shortage among health care workers and patients who actually need them.
The people driving to Costco and filling their trunks with Top Ramen might be somewhat problematically overzealous, but at least they have some kind of plan. Watching them forces us to think about how much bottled water or frozen pizza we’d require over the course of two weeks, or what we’d do all day while stuck at home (plenty of TikToks make it look pretty great — as long as you’re among the privileged people who are healthy and have jobs or lives that allow them to stay home).
There’s a reason so many people are filming others loading up their carts at Home Depot and Trader Joe’s, and why, when I wrote an article for Racked NY about New Yorkers turning grocery stores into “Lord of the Flies-style hellscapes” in anticipation of a blizzard in 2015, it was my most popular post that month. There is an element of Darwinism on display in times of panic, and there is pleasure in both the voyeurism of seeing how others respond to crisis and the solidarity felt as we all face an increasingly real threat.
In a piece for The Goods, Londoner Jessica Furseth wrote about the strange existential comfort of prepping for Brexit, even after dismissing the Y2K preppers in the late ’90s. “I alternate between feeling livid and heartbroken about what’s coming, but there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. So I’m buying coffee beans and wine instead — that’s one thing I can control,” she wrote.
During an outbreak where misinformation and mistrust of organizations is a real concern, videos of hoarded stockpiles provide an answer, and the answer, of course, is buying more stuff. With enough bottled water and five-pound bags of rice, things appear a little bit solvable, even as the actual problem could be getting worse.