As the number of new COVID-19 cases climb globally, many Canadians may be wondering about how to ready their households if they become impacted. 

BNN Bloomberg spoke with industry experts on how to prepare for an outbreak – and avoid panic buying – if the situation escalates.

When to stock up on food

Consumers have shared photos across social media over the last week of massive lines and empty shelves at stores such as Costco, as they stock up on items in fear of supply shortages as the virus spreads.

Sylvain Charlebois, senior director for the Agri-food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, said many Canadians are experiencing perceived scarcity, which has triggered panic buying specifically in the Prairies, Ontario and the Maritimes.  

“I would say typically dry goods and frozen foods are typically hot sellers whenever there is some ‘panic buying,’” he said in a phone interview. “We saw that with the (2019) hurricane in Halifax. It’s always the same pattern. Comfort food with chips and pretzels often sell out fast because people are looking for comfort in times of stress.”

Charlebois added that this situation is different than past outbreaks, since the world is more interconnected than it has ever been, which is why the global supply chain may suffer a bigger blow.

“The virus itself hasn’t affected America as much as China but people believe that it will catch up,” Charlebois said. “But before it gets worse, we have time for the supply chains to adapt. North America, when it comes to food, is very much self-sufficient. So if America is affected, that’s when it will greatly impact us in Canada.”  

Preparing for changes in the workplace

As countries such as Italy and Iran close public spaces in an effort to contain the virus, many employers are preparing for how it could impact day-to-day activity in office spaces.

Muneeza Sheikh, employment lawyer at Toronto-based Levitt LLP, said managers will need to prepare different scenarios if Canadians are in quarantine at home.

“If it’s a debate of having no real threat in Canada at the moment, you might find yourself in a hard place if you want an accommodation from your employer to work remotely,” she said in a phone interview. “The employer in this situation does not have an obligation to accommodate unless there’s a dire situation. That’s scenario one.”

“Scenario two is if it becomes a real concern like in Iran or Italy, where employers will have to think about how they are going to keep people safe. For the employer, it would be best practice allow flexibility and implement things that let people work from home. I think in that circumstance, an employer would be much more inclined to allow an accommodation to change the typical work flow.”

Stocking up on medication could cause shortages: Canadian Pharmacists Association

Barry Power, senior director at the Canadian Pharmacists Association, joins BNN Bloomberg to weigh in on how COVID-19 could potentially impact the drug supply chain. He says that there isn't a shortage right now, but that we could see disruption in the long term. He also says that advice from Canada's Chief Public Health Officer to stock up on medications could cause a shortage.

Avoid rushing to the pharmacy

China is one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturers and according to the Canadian Pharmacists Association, 50-to-80 per cent of drugs across the globe have components from China.

Barry Power, senior director of the association, says it’s important for people to avoid stockpiling prescriptions.

“We have some concerns about people rushing to the pharmacy to try and get a three-month supply of any prescription medications,” he said in a recent television interview with BNN Bloomberg. “That can actually trigger a lot of drug shortages if everybody does that.”

“What we do support is people making sure that they have things on-hand that can treat fever and pain such as Tylenol or acetaminophen, Advil or ibuprofen. Those are definitely things that people should have.”

Keep essentials handy

Diane Brisebois, president and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada, said she isn’t worried about retail shortages happening anytime soon. However, she suggests Canadians ensure they have the items they need in order to feel comfortable on a daily basis, such as personal hygiene products, canned goods, water, and dry goods.

“People shouldn’t be worried,” she said in a phone interview. “I say that with confidence at this time. We have been speaking with retailers across the country and manufactures as well. Oddly enough, we had greater concerns during the rail blockades than the coronavirus. That’s not saying that we don’t think it a serious issue, but in the short-term, there are no product shortage concerns for retailers.”