The Immediate Consequences of Rolling Panics


Today, the governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, began soliciting contributions of ordinary medical supplies (like masks) for healthcare workers.  That certainly sounds like a crisis sort of request, but with only 54 cases of Coronavirus in Rhode Island total (the great majority simply working through the illness at home), what caused it?  Well as early as January, Rhode Islanders were panic-buying such supplies.

That occurred to me for other reasons tonight.

While picking up some take-out dinner, I saw another customer showing around some sort of official-looking letter, and unless I misheard, somebody said, “Sounds like they’re expecting a lockdown.”  Perhaps you saw the news today that Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker had to assert that he doesn’t, at this moment, have plans to order “a statewide lockdown” as New York and California have done.

Those assurances might not be as powerful as the fact that they had to be made.  In a way, we’re all like stock traders looking for hints about the intentions of the Federal Reserve Bank.  Sure, Baker said he doesn’t intend a lockdown today, but if that changes tomorrow, we’ll want to have been ahead of the curve.

And so, when my wife went to a Massachusetts supermarket tonight thinking Friday night preferable to Saturday morning for the regular grocery run, she found the store shockingly busy and surprisingly empty of supplies.  Whereas so far the panic buying had concentrated on toilet paper and other paper goods, now the shelves are being cleared of everything.

The empty shelves aren’t the most relevant consequence, though.  Right now, government officials have placed their bets on getting people to keep their distance so the virus doesn’t spread as quickly.  Yet, when people get the feeling that restrictions are about to be ramped up, their natural urge is to rush out and gather what they think they’ll need.  This brings crowds to a grocery store relatively late on a Friday night.

How many days of “social distancing” was undone in one evening of lock-down-suspicion panic shopping, we may never know (assuming that’s what was going on).  But maybe we can remind ourselves that our actions should be governed by reason, even if it serves personal and political interests to play on emotions.


Featured image: A nuclear chain reaction via Michigan State University.