As many have reported in one form or another, the COVID-19 problem pushed some people a bit beyond common-sense approaches to preparation. Of course, this is nothing new, just think back to how people have responded to impending hurricanes or their pet theory of the imminent apocalypse. Empty shelves are nothing new. The only new thing is no long gas lines!
The panic buying mentality in which many engage at times, such as these, is somewhat understandable, even amusing. The problem is the panic buying may cause severe problems for those with special needs, and the empty shelves they encounter can be heartbreaking. Yet, as the title implies, this is not merely about panic buyers.
Opportunists and worse exist in every society and every country. They will not hesitate to profit from the fear, pain, and suffering of others. The coronavirus panic is likely a classic example of this. For instance, during the first weeks of this emergency, I, like many others, was out shopping for supplies to carry us through the potential restrictions coming from on high. What I saw was expected. It was also sad and illuminating.
There was the young couple in the checkout line at the local supermarket. They had two baskets loaded with food, other supplies, and two adorable boys. The obviously embarrassed young father made a point of announcing, somewhere between his indoor and outdoor voices, that they’d been visiting grandparents, and needed to stock the pantry.
Then there was the excursion to my preferred warehouse store. You know the great thing about these places is every level of society shows up at one time or another. Okay, maybe not the owners of the mansion on the hill, but one can see everything from day workers to CEOs at times, people who would never set foot in the big W will hang out in its warehouse derivative and its competition.
On this trip, before the establishment of “old guys” hours, the place was packed. One would have thought it was the Friday before spring break, and families were out stocking up for the coming week. Of course, some of these people were stocking up for more than a week.
That is where things began to be interesting. Many small businesses buy supplies at warehouse stores. You can see the owners of a little hole in the wall taco place, standing behind a guy who owns a food truck. In the next line may be the owners of my favorite donut shop, checking out just behind the owner of a maid service. On this day, those people were there, but so were many others. It was then the lightbulb went off above my head.
Opportunists and black markets exist in every society. They may be more prevalent in certain countries than others, but they exist everywhere. Then there are the unofficial, off the books, suppliers who do not really fit the black market label. After three decades in law enforcement and more years conducting investigations of one sort or another, I feel I am a fair judge of character. On that day and subsequently, I am sure many of the people in line with multiple baskets full of products were buying more than they needed at home.
Also, I have visited a couple of marginal, if not third world, countries. Additionally, friends and colleagues brought back tales from their visits to places even further down the economic ladder. In many of these places, small villages and towns do not have pharmacies, grocery stores, candy stores, and other businesses. Instead, they have neighbors who provide similar if not as expansive services.
For instance, in some places, it is not unusual to buy your candy from the candy “store” on a neighbor’s front porch. Then, you can get your hair cut at the house across the village, or you can buy fish from the guy across the road. Of course, eggs are available from the lady around the corner. In some cases, over the counter medicines can be bought from the family living by the church.
These front room or front porch businesses make a great deal of sense in areas where transportation is limited, and the local equivalent of Sams Club, Costco, or HEB is an hour’s walk away. They also make sense in some communities within the U. S. where there are similar circumstances.
Yes, it is possible the guy rolling out with twenty cases of bottled water just didn’t like the taste of Fort Worth’s water. Also, it’s possible the guy with a cartload of wine was throwing a gourmet dinner to celebrate the fact he tested negative for the virus. Yeah, and a guy wanting to buy a pallet load of sanitizer the other day just has a big family.[i]
In many areas, there are neighborhoods with limited, if any, retail outlets. The big boys do not want to do business there, and convenience or small discount stores may not fit all of someone’s needs. Is it out of the realm of possibility for someone to decide, they’ll just buy some staples from a big box store and resell them to neighbors and friends who cannot make the trek? Add to that the normal black market, or underground market, if you prefer for tobacco and alcohol, and the idea of private enterprise of this nature is not only plausible, it is likely.[ii]
There are always vulnerable and gullible populations in any major city. They almost guarantee some of this panic buying is not panic buying. Yes, over-enthusiastic preppers or people convinced they will not be able to leave their home for weeks may go a bit crazy. In this case, some of these folks may be stocking their sheds, extra bedroom, whatever with stuff they hope to make a buck off of in one way or another.
[ii] This may sound a bit far-fetched, but over the years in my law enforcement and other capacities, I became aware of all sorts of what one could call off-the-books or black market activity. From the liquor store owner who sold booze out his back door to the guys selling cigarettes to kids that kind of trade has existed as long as the laws made it illegal. Currently, I am trying to rundown the possibility some people are making money from lotto cards. I’ve seen more than one individual buy hundreds of dollars worth of cards at a time. They either have a gambling habit such as I’ve never seen or they’re selling these to others for a small profit and are likely buying winners back at a slight discount. Then again, I may just be a suspicious old fart.