Despite no official shortages of goods, many around the world have taken to hoarding essentials and selling them at high mark-ups.
While global travel restrictions have been implemented by world governments, trade for the most part continues as normal.
Officials in many countries realise that while slowing the spread of the coronavirus is a priority, restricting the movement of goods as they have done with the movement of people, may create the kind of panic and shortages that are more a feature of apocalyptic movies than civilised society.
Governments know that the continuation of trade will ensure prices are kept in check and that supplies continue to flow to supermarkets and retailers.
That’s the reason why despite panic buying in supermarkets across the world, retailers are able to replenish stock fast with minimal fluctuations in price.
But some people either haven’t got the memo or are not showing the ethics needed to navigate the crisis.
In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, online retailers like Amazon and eBay became the scene of frenzied buying of hygiene products, such as hand sanitisers.
Products that sold for just a few dollars a few weeks earlier were now selling for ten times as much.
In the case of Amazon, this was down to two independent phenomenons, the first being its complex algorithms, which set the price of a product based on existing sales and interest shown on a given product. This applied to products sold by Amazon and the retail behemoth was quick to reverse such increases.
The second are the prices set by independent retailers who use Amazon as a shopfront to sell their products.
On this front, upto 530,000 products were priced at extortionate levels, as individual sellers moved to cash in on the panic.
In one infamous example, two brothers from the US state of Tennessee hoarded more than 17,700 bottles of hand sanitiser, which normally sell for a few dollars each and sold them on Amazon for sums between $8 and $70.
Matt and Noah Colvin, made a 1,300 mile journey around the states of Tennessee and Kentucky, clearing out shelves at pharmacies and convenience stores, in order to build up their stockpile.
News of their behavior went viral on social media, with thousands bombarding the pair with hate messages.
Although initially unrepentant, Matt Colvin’s subsequent mea culpa saw him donate his stock to local officials for redistribution.
Despite the U-turn, the Colvins face an official investigation for price gouging.
Amazon, for its part, has moved to remove extortionately priced goods from its website, as has auction site eBay.
But it’s not just online where price fixing is taking place.
Social media is replete with images of hygiene products, which normally cost no more than the equivalent of a few dollars, on sale for multiple times their normal prices.
Many Twitter users in England also reported increases in meat prices of more than 50 percent.
In India, officials raided a shop in the tourist city of Goa for selling substandard face masks and hygiene products and huge markups.
It is a global phenomenon, and as the Indian example demonstrates, authorities across the world are keeping an eye on the trend. Many countries have statutes in place to ensure price gouging does not take place.
In the US state of Minnesota, the state’s attorney general’s office said it was “ready to protect the people of this State from those who would take advantage of these circumstances.”
Many other officials are making similar warnings and customers are threatening boycotts of businesses that indulge in the practice.
When officials in the city of Detroit in the US state of Michigan issued a ‘cease and desist’ order to home improvement store, Menards, for price gouging, one Twitter user reacted:
“Everyone should boycott Menards for good and let go out of business. Pricing gouging your community & neighbors is just plain WRONG!”
The blame however, should not fall on shops alone. One British pharmaceutical industry insider, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not want undue attention, told TRT World that wholesalers were jacking up prices and retailers therefore had no choice but to pass the increases on.
The psychology of panic buying
Focusing on the sellers alone is just half the story and many will be wondering why someone would be willing to pay $70 for a bottle of hand sanitiser in the first place.
To understand why means getting a little philosophical, as a recent NBC news article explains.
The Coronavirus epidemic has caused disruption on a scale that few people will ever have witnessed in their lifetimes.
The threat of the virus itself, alongside the consequent uprooting of people’s daily routine and their idea of normality, results in a loss of agency that they have few ways of redressing.
One way in which they feel they have control, is by keeping a healthy supply of items they believe will keep them safe.
In an interview with NBC psychology professor, Paul Slovic, explained:
"Washing our hands and using sanitiser is one of the few things that we're being told that we can do to give us a sense of control over our risk, so it's not surprising then that people are going big time to do this."
With such emotional stakes, it's not a surprise people are desperate to get a hold of products, and consequently that there are people willing to take advantage of that desperation.