Hoarding and the COVID-19 Pandemic

How panic buying and opportunism have confused some and stigmatized others.

Posted Oct 30, 2020

During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2019-2020, a lack of information about the potential impact of COVID-19 on human health and well-being, combined with rapid spread, led to widespread alarm among communities and governments throughout the world. In the context of this fear, and in preparation for a possible long-term quarantine, many people in the United States and elsewhere began to obtain and store large quantities of suddenly essential supplies such as hand sanitizer and cleaning products, as well as everyday products such as toilet paper and bottled water. In some cases, these behaviors, which were collectively termed “hoarding” by the popular press, were a result of opportunism or greed, but in most, they were simply panic buying by people afraid of getting ill or having to do without essential resources in the event of a possible quarantine.

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Toilet paper and other essential items are often stockpiled during a crisis or natural disaster.
Source: Maridav/iStock

Matt and Noah Colvin, two brothers from Tennessee who recognized a potential business opportunity in the early days of the pandemic, represent one of the most extreme and well-publicized cases of COVID-related opportunism and profiteering. The Colvin brothers, nicknamed “The Hoarding Brothers” by the popular press, traveled over 1,300 miles across Tennessee and Kentucky in early March 2020, buying nearly 18,000 bottles of hand sanitizer from big-box retailers and discount stores. They then attempted to sell their merchandise for greatly inflated prices on internet sites such as Amazon and eBay. 

Fortunately, these online retailers have policies (and computer algorithms) in place to prevent such price gouging, and the Colvin brothers soon found themselves blocked from selling anything on the popular e-commerce websites. In the face of both the widespread anger and public shaming that occurred after their story was published, as well as an investigation by the Tennessee attorney general’s office for potential price gouging, the Colvin brothers decided to donate their bottles of hand sanitizer to people in need across Tennessee and Kentucky.

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Hoarding disorder is a serious psychiatric illness that is often misunderstood by the popular press.
Source: trekandshoot/Shutterstock

The story of the Colvin brothers, along with hundreds of other stories in the media about panic buying and opportunism, has led to an increased awareness of hoarding behaviors and their potential impact on both individuals and society. But increased awareness does not always lead to increased understanding.  For individuals who suffer from hoarding disorder, a serious psychiatric illness that affects approximately 1 in every 20 adults, the increase in the casual use of the term “hoarding” during the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a wave of emotions and a range of responses.

Some describe feeling empathy and understanding for those who engage in panic buying, as they recognize in others the feelings of insecurity and need to feel safe that they may believe drive their own hoarding behaviors. But many, like activist, educator, and certified peer specialist Lee Shuer, who has struggled with hoarding disorder for most of his adult life, view this trend with alarm. 

In particular, Lee is concerned about the negative emotional impact of using the term “hoarding” to represent opportunism or profiteering, as in the newly developed Hoarding and Price Gouging Task Force, which was created by the Department of Justice to identify “and aggressively pursue bad actors who amass critical supplies either far beyond what they could use or for the purpose of profiteering."  

According to the executive order, the intent of the task force is to “identify criminals seeking to exploit the current panic and economic dislocation”, in particular, “bad actors who treat the crisis as an opportunity to get rich quick.” However, the language as laid out in the executive order is sufficiently vague as to potentially include individuals with hoarding disorder (as well as others who are simply engaging in panic buying) who purchase more hand sanitizer or surgical masks than they might need as individuals. 

As Lee puts it, this task force, as currently described, “criminalizes the over-acquiring of necessary items like masks and hand sanitizer, regardless of the cause or motive. Hoarding disorder is lumped in with a criminal act [that of price gouging], which blurs the line between mental health and greed. An increase in stigma and shame [that result from this conflation of terms] reduces the likelihood that innocent people will seek or accept help for hoarding disorder.” Visions of neighbors reporting neighbors to the justice department for having too much toilet paper quickly come to mind. 

Like the rest of the world, people with hoarding disorder have responded to the pandemic, which led to the rapid quarantine and social isolation of millions of people worldwide, in a variety of ways.  Some have felt justified in their urges to save and noted that they were more prepared for the quarantine and resulting supply shortage than they might otherwise have been. Some have stocked up on items such as specific foods that are particularly important to them, just in case they become unavailable or hard to find in the future. Others have noticed that they are having more difficulty letting go of certain items, especially items that have a relationship to past disasters such as the World Trade Center bombing, or Hurricane Irma. Still others have used the enforced isolation and restriction of movement to their advantage, using their time to sort through their belongings and more effectively de-clutter.

Thus, although there are perhaps common themes, there is no one universal response from people with hoarding disorder to the COVID-19 pandemic. As anyone would do in such a crisis, those with problematic hoarding have either reacted or rallied, and sometimes have done both, depending on their own individual circumstances, on the availability and support of their friends and neighbors, and on the course of the response by their governments, both local and federal.

Perhaps the biggest threat to people with hoarding disorder during the pandemic is that of increased misunderstanding and stigmatization of this already poorly understood psychiatric illness. Language and the choice of words, particularly by those in authority, can have a real impact on the beliefs and behaviors of a community. The use of the term “hoarding” and its association with criminal behavior by both the US government and by the popular press in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic increases the likelihood that those who suffer from this often debilitating illness will be unfairly vilified, whether their hoarding behaviors extend to the over-acquiring of hand sanitizer or whether they are limited to being unable to discard junk mail and un-needed containers. Thus, the goal of this blog and others like it is to prevent misunderstanding and stigmatization of hoarding disorder by increasing the reader’s knowledge of this complex and often unrecognized illness.