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COVID-19: Why panic buying is pointless and puts others at risk

On a live feed broadcast on every major television channel in Malaysia yesterday, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced a Perintah Kawalan Pergerakan from the 18th till the 31st of March.

Initially, there was some confusion over the exact nature of the order, and the variety of English translations only added to the confusion (lockdown? restricted movement?). In fact, the underlying theme of yesterdays’ entire sequence events was one of confusion—and this lack of clarity has contributed to a new phenomenon: panic buying.

Multiple images have surfaced online that show long lines at supermarket cashiers, with Malaysians stocking up on essential items—instant noodles, obviously—to prepare for the 2 weeks. But this actually began around 48 hours earlier.

How did this all start?

As early as the weekend, the Health Minister announced to the press that there would be a meeting held on Monday, 16 March to discuss the best way to handle the growing COVID-19 outbreak. Amidst calls made to the new government for a “lockdown” of sorts, the general consensus among Malaysia began to form—a lockdown order would be made after Monday’s meeting.

The resulting back-and-forth between parties only served to stoke the paranoia of the masses, and Malaysians rushed to nearby supermarkets and grocery stores to stock up for the coming weeks—even before the PM’s announcement.

The announcement makes it clear that supermarkets and supply stores will still be open, despite the restriction order. Markets that sell daily needs goods will continue to operate, along with essential services such as energy, telecommunication, post, financial institutions, and so on. Prime Minister Muhyiddin himself has issued a statement asking for Malaysians to remain calm:

“Don’t worry, there is enough food around. I know there’s a certain degree of panic among you. I noted there is serious worry that there is not enough food around. But we believe there is a sufficient amount. We are also asking the Agriculture and Food Industries Ministry to monitor the situation on the ground.”

“So, don’t rush, buy what is necessary and stock what is necessary and we will ensure that food is available to you at all times.”

And yet, Malaysians have flocked to supermarkets in the masses. Shelves have been cleared, and the situation is generally one of chaos.

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The downsides

The downsides to this mass stockpiling of groceries is that it may leave others shortchanged. Workers from certain sectors who are paid by the hour/day may not have enough cash-on-hand to be able to shop in bulk, while elderly and OKU groups are having to deal with the added challenge of overcrowded supermarkets and stores.

In a nice gesture however, the CEO of Mydin stated on social media that all Mydin stores will be opening half an hour early from Wednesday (7.30am), to cater exclusively for senior citizens and OKU.

Jaya Grocer is also implementing special opening hours from 9.30am, with regular hours to begin at 10am.

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While those in the gig economy—including freelancers—will certainly be hit hard by the movement control order, it’s still important to understand that the movement control order is not a full lockdown. Instead, it’s a move to “flatten the epidemic curve”, according to former Health Minister Dzukefly Ahmad. In fact, Grab has already explained that GrabFood and GrabCar will continue to run as usual during the order (Grab falls under transportation/food supplies).

And of course, there’s the obvious (but mostly unmentioned) risk of spreading the outbreak by going to overcrowded supermarkets. In his speech, the PM states that the order restricts all movement and large assemblies in public during the period—but aren’t these supermarkets, filled to the brim with panicked shoppers, considered to be large assemblies?

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