In countries as far apart as Japan, Australia and the US there have been reports of panicked shoppers stocking up on everything from long-life milk to noodles, while videos of people fighting in supermarket aisles over toilet paper inAustralia have gone viral as coronavirus spreads with frightening speed across the world.
Large retail chains in the UK, including Tesco, have started rolling out a rationing system for key products and shoppers are not being allowed buy more than five of certain goods, including antibacterial gels, wipes and sprays, dry pasta, UHT milk and some tinned vegetables.
Pictures of empty shelves are circulating widely on social media.
While there has been no formal rationing in Ireland, this country has not been immune to the panic buying and there has been a noticeable surge in the sale of canned goods, pasta and cleaning products in supermarkets here.
Items deemed to be essential in the current climate, including hand sanitiser and face masks have largely disappeared from shelves while wholesalers are reporting sales level for groceries normally not seen outside of the peak shopping period before Christmas.
‘Not going to starve’
But, as yet, the panic seen elsewhere and evident in the Republic when snow brought the country to a virtual standstill two years ago during what became known as the Beast from the East has yet to materialise.
Retailers and retail analysts and Government ministers have all been anxious to keep it that way and to stress that there is no need for panic as supply lines remain solid.
“People are looking at how fragile supply seemed to be during the snow of two years ago but the reason food shortages became such a big issue then was because transport and distribution were very badly affected,” said retail expert and TU Dublin academic Damien O’Reilly.
“That should not happen now unless we have huge numbers of people who are self-isolating. There should not be a problem with supplies of bread, milk, eggs and meat because those things are produced in Ireland. And it is important to stress that we produce enough of what we need here and we’re not going to starve.”
Mr O’Reilly added that work done by retail chains to streamline and improve their supply lines ahead of Britain potentially crashing out of the EU last year will prove to be of benefit in the weeks ahead.
But despite his reassurances, many continue to stock-pile with logic rarely coming into their purchasing decisions.
"Consumers compensate for a perceived loss of control by buying products designed to fill a basic need, solve a problem or accomplish a task," wrote Andy J Yap, an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at business school INSEAD in the Conversation online magazine yesterday.
“This is what we’re seeing as people rush to buy rice, cleaning products and paper goods in illogically large proportions.
He added that in times of crisis, “people don’t want a huge debate, they want action. To assuage people’s anxiety and help them regain a feeling of control, it is up to governments to signal that they have a game plan in mind and are taking timely steps to address the problem.”
The Government tried that late last week.
After a high-level meeting between her department and representatives of the grocery sector to discuss contingency plans for food supplies, the Minister for Enterprise Heather Humphries said she had been "greatly encouraged" by preparations.
She said she had been “assured that grocery supply chains are well-stocked and there is ample supply to meet demand”.
Retailers – at least those who have responded to queries from this newspaper – have also stressed their supply lines are sturdy enough to withstand shocks related to the spread of Covid-19.
In 2019 academics from Trinity College and Dublin City University published research in the Journal of Marketing Management looking at a cohort of people who don't believe such assurances – preppers.
The paper pointed to a rise in the number of people readying themselves for existential threats by stocking up on food, fuel and securing their own water and power supplies.
The researchers concluded that so-called “prepping” had moved from being “a marginal subculture [into] an increasingly mainstream phenomenon, driven not by delusional certainty, but a precautionary response to a generalised anxiety people have around permanent crisis.”
Dr Gary Sinclair of DCU was one of the authors of the report and told The Irish Times that people not normally given to anticipating the breakdown of civilisation would still move swiftly to stockpile key items if they saw that things were running short.
“I think you only need to look at what happened during the snow two years ago to see how Irish people react in a crisis and to see how fragile supply lines can be. We had all these people panic-buying bread even though it made absolutely no sense. And you have the riots in Australia over toilet paper. It shows how irrational people can become and that is understandable because people are frightened.”
Mr O’Reilly played down such fears and said that while people could expect to see changes in their supermarkets in the days and weeks ahead, food would not run out.
“I think we will see retailers asking manufacturers to make just one size of a particular product and choice will go down for a period,” he said. “But we are not heading into Mad Max territory, definitely not.”