Claire never thought of herself as someone who would stockpile food for emergencies, but the unprecedented summer of bushfires and wild weather has changed her perspective on being prepared for a coronavirus outbreak.
“If you’d asked me six months ago if I’d be a prepper I’d have said you were crazy,” says the Canberra-based journalist, whose name has been changed for the purposes of this story. “But this summer changed everything.”
After the bushfire crisis, she feels we’re in new territory. “After Canberra’s never-ending apocalyptic smoke, then golf-sized hail stones, I learned our world can turn upside down incredibly quickly,” she says.
“It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch that we may end up in a situation which – like the bushfires – was previously unimaginable.”
She’s stocking up on essential medication that she takes daily and over the counter medication her son takes. “What if we’re at the end of our supply and things change quickly? It just seems sensible.”
She is also stocking up on long-lasting carbs, cans of food and long-life milk. “I feel like actually this could help others – if something does happen and there’s a rush on the shops, I won’t be part of the problem,” she says.
Despite the increased focus in the news and on social media about stockpiling during the coronavirus outbreak, experts say that it is completely unnecessary.
“There’s no need to stockpile food, medicine, petrol or anything at this stage,” says Prof Nigel McMillan, director of infectious diseases and immunology at the Menzies Health Institute at Griffith University in Queensland. “We don’t wish to induce panic buying when, for 95 to 99% of the population, this’ll be a mild cold, nothing more. Plus, once we’ve had this strain, we’ll become immune to it.”
He’s particularly keen for Australians to keep perspective. “If the WHO hypothetically announce a pandemic tomorrow, things won’t change for Australia. In a month or two, the travel ban will come off and the virus will eventually reach our shores, so we have plenty of time to plan. It’ll be a slowish burn.”
Even then, though, he warns against stockpiling. “Things won’t stop instantly. It won’t be like China where everyone’s told to stay at home and no one’s out on streets.” In today’s landscape of apps offering food delivery from all over, he says, there’s even less reason to panic-buy.
But that hasn’t prevented Australians from doing it.
Amelia Procter, 47, is a product manager from Sydney, and wasn’t initially going to stockpile: “I’m always laughing at people filling trolleys at Christmas and Easter,” she says. “It’s nuts.”
But this time, her partner persuaded her otherwise. “He’s the more rational and less anxious of the two of us and he suggested it,” she says. “It made me think it was less of a crazy thing to do.”
Usually the couple have a week’s worth of supplies at home, and they’ve never stockpiled before. Now, they have long lists to buy up to three months’ worth of stock.
And they’ve already started.
“Fridge and pantry supplies, toilet paper, painkillers, frozen fruit and veg, frozen meat, rice, cleaning products and toiletry items, feminine hygiene. Anything I might run out of in a three-month period and that’d sustain me and my partner should we become housebound and/or local stores sell out,” Procter says.
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The turning point was when the couple listened to podcasts from overseas “rather than just what the media is feeding us,” Procter says. “You see pictures of empty supermarkets overseas. Some experts are saying it’s unnecessary, but I disagree.”
One way the couple have rationalised it is that if they do become infected, they don’t want to spread it. “We wouldn’t want to put colleagues at risk. Even if you get a common cold, it’s not nice to go out and infect people for a week,” Procter says.
She concedes that the reaction of those around her has been “mostly rolled eyes or people laughing”. And she’s also prepared to join them. “If it’s OTT, at least we can still consume it – we’re freezing most stuff – and have a laugh about it one day,” she says.
One thing Procter isn’t stockpiling is face masks – she doesn’t believe they work – and Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy warned against it on Friday. “No one should going around wearing and wasting face masks,” he said, adding that while it is likely Australia will get more coronavirus cases in the coming weeks, 80% of cases are mild.
An indication that others are stockpiling masks comes from one Sydney dentist, Frank Farrelly. He says the triple whammy of bushfires, coronavirus and now China stopping exporting face masks is seeing shortages across dental practices.
“We go through 20 to 30 of them a day,” he says. “I’m hearing of Australian dental practices now cutting hours to ration their stock.”
Emails from manufacturers are saying there are logistical problems getting the masks out of China, where the majority are made. “Those masks are essential for our job,” Farrelly says. “They protect us when we use the water spray for a filling, which potentially flicks out saliva, blood and bacteria.”
Consequently he’s stockpiling – but responsibly.
“We’re dispersing our mask orders across multiple suppliers – we felt a responsibility not to encourage panic buying,” he says. But even that may soon need to be revised. “Now most dental suppliers are limiting stock orders,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve seen masks restricted like this.”
In a press conference on Friday, the health minister, Greg Hunt, made it clear there was no threat to medical supplies or masks in hospitals.
Meanwhile, Sydney’s Steve Spencer is going to try to get double his HIV medication next week – a six-month supply rather than the usual three – “just in case”.
Others are being more coy about their stockpiling decisions. Two people spoke to me on the condition of anonymity.
James*, a journalist from Burwood, sent me a picture of bread he was freezing.
He thinks it’s sensible for pantries to have a few weeks of food in them. “We’re constantly advised to have six months worth of savings on hand in case of emergencies, so why not a fortnight’s food?” he says. “Food supply issues happen often in Australia, just ask those in Queensland or the NT post floods. They’re more used to empty shelves for a few days than those of Sydney and Melbourne who might panic buy if a pandemic was declared.”
In case of “an Italy situation”, he has stocked up on dried foods, frozen meat and stir fry sauces. His most important stockpile item, he says, was wine. “I can’t be without my Shiraz in a national crisis!”
Part of the problem spurring panic buying, McMillan says, is we’re much better informed than during the “Hong Kong flu” of 1968 – another global pandemic – which killed between one and four million people. “Today we have a front row seat. We know instantaneously when someone in Italy, Iraq, Korea gets diagnosed,” he says. “If we were in 1968 now, the Guardian headline would be there are some people sick in China. That’s all we’d know.
“We have really well-prepared systems, plans and resources in Australia. We pay health department officials to worry about these sort of things.
“There’ll always be doomsdayists that want to stockpile.”
* Names have been changed