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COVID-19 shopping panic harms seniors



Since the potential pandemic warning, Australian shoppers have raided supermarkets in preparation for indefinite quarantine. The stockpiling has left many facing empty aisles and lacking basic necessities. But this doomsday practice extends beyond not being able to buy pasta shells or running out of toilet paper — it also leaves vulnerable populations at risk.

Elderly woman standing in front of cleared out shelves (Getty Images/Sean Gallup)

Older people are particularly suffering at the expense of quick-handed customers. Overfilled trolleys have a ripple effect on senior citizens’ routines, health and safety. Both physical limitations such as mobility, vision and hearing, as well as cognitive conditions like dementia or mental health can make day-to-day chores challenging enough.

So when the elderly are confronted by bare shelves in wake of COVID-19, they are faced with a difficult choice: find alternatives within their means if supplies are available at all, or go without.

Seniors without driver licenses already only shop fortnightly or monthly, so they lack the opportunity to travel further away to buy goods sold out near them.

IGA St Ives, for example, is located near a retirement village and estimates nearly half its customer base are senior citizens. Retail manager Sasha Vallaydam says this demographic is overwhelmed by the speed and ferocity of groceries being wiped out.  

Items on special can be vital for pensioner budgets, however, these yellow-docket products have been the first to go. When his toilet paper supply began to dwindle, Sasha saw some elderly customers calculating the difference in pricier brands to assess if they could afford it.


'The panic buying around coronavirus is seriously disadvantaging the elderly’s daily functioning, on top of the fact that the virus, if not contained, will claim more fatalities from this demographic than any other age bracket.'


Alternatives to buying in store are also limited. The stock levels have incapacitated the franchisor’s ability to fulfil necessary home delivery services, and scrounging the net for stock is a privilege, as older people are less likely to have a connection to the internet or to know how to use online shopping for orders.

As a result, elderly shoppers 'must rely on family, friends or services to help them when goods are sold out,' says Lila Rhodes, an aged care worker. 'This is not always possible, especially for those who don’t have family close by, a strong friendship base or their connections are in the same position as them.'

Lila works with clients through the Federal Home Care Package scheme, which allocates benefits depending on the receivers’ level of need. The funding is distributed at behest of a third-party carer organisation to provide a range of services for eligible clients. 

'If [the immobile] miss out on food because there’s none left in store, they might have to wait another fortnight to go shopping again with their aged care worker,' she says. 

Eddy from the eastern suburbs, 75, is generally prepared. As a habitual bulk buyer, he is equipped with sturdy toilet paper reserves since pre-coronavirus hysteria. However, when running an errand this week, he was shocked when security turned him away from the chemist, citing a lack of over-the-counter and prescription goods for the denied entry. 'What can you do?' he asks defeatedly. 

It’s a sentiment shared by community workers who fear a lack of medical supplies for the infirm. Home visitation nurses rely on masks and hand sanitiser to ensure germ-free treatment, but agencies are struggling to provide these supplies due to new consumer demand. The risk of preventable side effects when handling the bedridden skyrockets when medical gear is siphoned elsewhere. 

The panic buying around coronavirus is seriously disadvantaging the elderly’s daily functioning, on top of the fact that the virus, if not contained, will claim more fatalities from this demographic than any other age bracket.

Stockpiling is an added grievance to a looming health scare for older people, and it’s a luxury not all can afford or accommodate. The high demand for certain groceries is causing unnecessary stress for our aging population’s wellbeing. Their genuine and complex needs must be prioritised over the average Australian’s misinformed and selfish behaviour. Panic shopping is going too fast in a race where not everyone is young enough to keep up.



Millie RobertsMillie Roberts is a writer from Sydney covering minorities, culture and lifestyle. 

Main image: Elderly woman standing in front of cleared out shelves (Getty Images/Sean Gallup)

Topic tags: Millie Roberts, COVID-19, elderly



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Existing comments

Perhaps, in my very early 70s, I should class myself as 'elderly'. Having a wife with disabilities should also further worsen my plight. Fortunately where we live in Brisbane has not seen the toilet paper supply run out. Sanity appears to have prevailed. We do need an outbreak of mass sanity in this regard. My own gut feeling is that the current COVID-19 hysteria in this country is worse than the disease, which, for a variety of reasons, seems better contained here than in many other countries.

Edward Fido | 10 March 2020  

Free markets don’t work when consumers (in other cases, it may be the providers of goods and services, such as with the no-blacks lunch counter or accommodation policies of the past) are irrational. Using the temporary strength of having a bigger wallet to deny another's needs is a form of bullying. The ceteris paribus rule – “all other things being equal” – presupposes economic parties who are rational, rationality being a teleological construct which is indivisible from the God who is Reason. Irrationality, being ungodly, is behaving with licence, not liberty, and, as such, in self-defence of liberty, the public authority of and by the people may take properly instituted measures to suppress irrationality and private agents of conscience (such as the managers of supermarkets) may do the same as well.

roy chen yee | 11 March 2020  

I have been made aware of a quote from Ernest Becker's book " The Denial of Death", that humans are "gods with an anus". KGIT

Kevin G Thompson | 11 March 2020  

Good to see Edward and Roy putting raising the voice of rational perspective in the volatile COVID-19 climate.

John RD | 12 March 2020  

Thank you for this. But the points made here need to get much wider distribution, e.g. in the Daily Telegraph. And at 84, though still active, with all family members distant (siblings themselves more unwell than myself) and no car and most local contacts also elderly, how do people such as myself get continued assistance if that becomes needed ?

John Bunyan | 13 March 2020  

After a horror trip to my local, huge Coles I recalled how at the beginning of WW11, when I was very young, the government quickly issued laws regarding the rationing of essential goods - petrol, meat, sugar, tea, butter and clothes. Perhaps our government should stay home from the football and think up a similar plan for our current predicament where people only think of themselves and how that is more 'catching' than the virus!

Jennifer Raper | 13 March 2020  

People with disability or with young children and no supports will also suffer. I have been attempting to shop online as I cannot leave the house. Because of my disability it’s hard to process online forms. I’ve spent seven hours in total trying to place orders. By the time I manage to get to the checkout, I’m told my delivery spot has been filled or to “try again later” Marginalised people often feel invisible, or like we don’t matter. For me this is another case of senseless, inconsiderate behaviour that causes stress and hardship for people who have way too much to manage in the first place.We live in a country where there is enough for everyone. How sad to see such a widespread example of the culture that leaves many people lacking essentials because others lack compassion and reason.

Erika Gelzinnis | 14 March 2020  

Jennifer is right, the ration books should have been distributed long ago. But then that would mean that the government had to take the lead, something that this government doesn't seem to understand.

Ginger Meggs | 16 March 2020  

Like many respondents, I am 71 with COPD and a pacemaker.I have been stunned by the irrationality of people hording essential items like tinned food, pasta , drugs etc and the stupidly in my opinion about toilet rolls. I blame idiotic headlines in the "gutter" print press ( Murdoch) and sensational commentary on the commercial Radio and TV media. The blogs on the Internet and other electronic forums are not much better! Thank God for the ABC who has done its best to inform not alarm

Gavin O'Brien | 16 March 2020  

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