Coronavirus fears: Empty shelves as Canadians heed health ministers advice to stock up
In the days since Canada’s health minister encouraged people to stockpile supplies in case of a coronavirus outbreak, photos have emerged of empty shelves at stores across the country.
Customers took to social media over the weekend to report shortages of hand sanitizer, toilet paper, meat, canned goods and food staples such as bread and eggs. Photos showed long lines and rows upon rows of empty shelves. And at Toronto Costco locations, employees were wiping carts with disinfectant wipes as customers entered the store.
Justin Hayek tweeted a text exchange on Saturday with a family member who works at a Costco in Vancouver.
The employee said that people are buying up, meat, canned goods, paper towels and toilet paper and the store had sold out of hand sanitizer the day before in just 30 minutes. “It’s nuts.”
Costco did not respond to a request for comment before press time.
Canadian retailers have experienced both supply issues due to the rail blockades and a ramping up of demand following the outbreak of COVID-19, said Karl Littler, senior vice-president of public affairs for the Retail Council of Canada. But so far, those issues have not resulted in significant shortages as Canadian food retailers reroute cargo and shift from rail to trucking where necessary.
“We really don’t see a problem on food availability,” Littler said. “For the most part, the foods Canadians eat are from Canadian and North American suppliers. So I doubt there are bare shelves on a widespread basis and to the extent anything is in short supply, I’d attribute it more to the blockades.”
Americans also stocked up over the weekend, with reports of panic buying across the country. State health departments had urged residents to prepare for potential quarantines by buying supplies of non-perishable foods, prescription medication and sanitary supplies, said Sylvain Charlebois, the director of Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab.
In general, Americans tend to perceive and respond to food safety concerns differently, Charlebois said.
“I’ve seen this time and again,” he said. “It’s appropriate for people to have some food in the freezer. It’s sound and rational to have three days of inventory at any time for example. But we shouldn’t be overdoing it.”
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Health Minister Patty Hajdu recommended last Wednesday that Canadians stock up with enough supplies for “a week or so” in case they or a family member contract the coronavirus and have to remain in self-isolation for 14 days.
“It’s good to be prepared because things can change quickly,” she said.
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam echoed that message on Thursday in a tweet urging Canadians to keep extra food and medication on hand.
Vicki Laszlo tweeted Sunday evening that her local Costco in Calgary had run out of toilet paper, tissue and eggs, while rice and canned tomatoes were also running low. Elizabeth Mazzei posted a photo of a “doomsday scenario” in a Burnaby Costco — a checkout line the length of the store — and Twitter user @BeeZee05 posted a photo of a long queue outside a Costco in Burlington, Ont., Sunday morning. Dan Voshart reported a shortage of hand sanitizer at stores across Toronto.
Not everyone agrees that telling Canadians to stock up on supplies was sound advice.
Federal Conservative health critic Matt Jeneroux said telling people to stockpile can incite a lot of public concern, and that the government should be more specific about the steps people should take to prepare for a possible outbreak.
Christine Elliot, the health minister of Ontario, said she believes stockpiling is unnecessary, and that people should continue to go about their lives while being cautious.
The most common COVID-19 symptoms are a fever and dry cough, but while some show no symptoms at all, others have developed severe pneumonia and have even died.
As of Monday morning, WHO had reported 88,948 cases worldwide and 3,043 deaths. Canada has identified 24 cases: 15 in Ontario, eight in B.C. and one in Quebec.