The outbreak of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus has now expanded well beyond China and has reached much higher numbers than global health watchers would have hoped for. With more cases in Italy, Iran and South Korea, there are also newly reported cases in Spain, Greece, Brazil, elsewhere in the Middle East and so on. The instances of deaths and illnesses are the worst situations to consider, but the underlying “fear and uncertainty” are already spelling trouble for the global economy. The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that the number of cases outside of China is now greater than the number of cases in China, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that it’s likely “when rather than if” for expectations of an outbreak in the public in the United States.
The public has every right to be concerned about the coronavirus, and there are some lessons from the not-so-distant past that may prove to be beneficial from a rather unique subset of the population: doomsday preppers.
24/7 Wall St. routinely tracks many issues covering the economy and the personal well-being of the average person. With this in mind, we have looked back at our coverage of doomsday preppers from the past decade and applied some of the thoughts to the current scare. The public hasn’t had to pay much attention of late because the last rise of the doomsday preppers was during and in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Still, every agency and forecasting outfit around has warned about GDP taking a hit. And a fresh look at consumer sentiment took a dive with citations about the coronavirus fears.
The first thing to consider is that doomsday prepping is not a new phenomenon, nor are the concerns over viral outbreaks. There are still many homes and many buildings throughout America that have built-in bomb shelters from the Cold War era, and many people have built remote shelters in more modern times to protect their families from societal threats. The U.S. Congress even built a government relocation site at the famous Greenbrier Resort as an alternative site.
Before considering doomsday preppers might be too extreme for the coronavirus scenario, not all doomsday preppers are alike. Some have feared a global economic meltdown. Some have feared a totalitarian takeover or terrorism of various sorts. Others just fear mass unrest. And some preppers fear pandemic outbreaks. This means that not all the lessons of the doomsday preppers from the past decade will apply to those people who are greatly concerned about the coronavirus. There are still some issues that can be applied to the current coronavirus situation.
Before considering that activities and efforts of doomsday preppers may be going too far, imagine what a pandemic outbreak would do in America. The very first lesson to observe is what took place in China during January and February. The city of Wuhan was locked down, cutting all travel in and out. Workers were told to stay home, and some could not get to where they needed to go. Airlines stopped flying in and out of China for the most part, and the travel industry has continued to see declining demand and higher cancellations.
Extreme survivalists within the prepping community would keep a “bugout gear” handy that goes well beyond a suitcase, backpack, and tent. Many preppers keep gold and silver stashed away (and gold has risen from under $1,500 per ounce at the end of 2019 to as much as $1,650 in February). Many preppers also keep guns, knives, and ammunition handy, as well as many basic medical supplies. Preppers were also known for owning generators and keeping extra food and basic cooking supplies that could last for months.
If we just take the CDC at its word that the public should prepare for a “when rather than if” scenario, a pandemic outbreak would cause major disruptions. Air travel may face cancellations or limited numbers of flights, and even the flow of goods around the United States could face delays or come to a halt. Hospitals and medical facilities could become overwhelmed. Many factories and offices could be closed. Schools could be closed, and mass gatherings and public events could be canceled. While these may seem overly alarming, those warnings already have been made, and that’s what has recently happened in other nations.
If you add all these considerations up, the United States could turn into an economy that becomes stuck at home with no place to go. Assuming shelter is already accounted for, there are many other considerations about the basics of life that preppers could teach the public, and many industries have already announced that they have been affected by the coronavirus.
Food and water might not be an immediate concern under a pandemic scenario, at least not for a while. The search term “MRE” on Google has seen spikes in the past month. Ditto for “emergency food” as a search term. Under pandemic scares, it is assumed that grocery store access would still be available. The business at restaurants and bars would face far worse problems, with lower demand from the public, and many of their workers stuck at home to tend to their families. The public should consider that store shelves were empty in some parts of China.
Some medical products already have seen a jump in demand. Preppers who feared a pandemic would have already owned medical masks that would typically be seen in health care settings. As of late February 2020, there already was a shortage of surgical and medical masks. These are out of stock at many retail locations, and many wholesale locations have these on back-order and listed as out of stock. Even 3M’s supply of cloth medical masks was recently shown to be on global allocation.
Preppers would not have likely counted on the travel industry to be there for them in times of need. That said, the travel sector has taken it on the chin even in areas not affected by the coronavirus. The travel agency tech and software provider Sabre already has warned that bookings have been lower and that cancellations have been higher with airlines and hotels alike. Cruise lines and airlines have all made announcements that the coronavirus and certain route closures would negatively impact their earnings and revenues in the weeks (or longer) ahead. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has had travel advisories early for China, but on February 23 the FAA issued travel advisories for South Korea and Japan.
Personal care products and consumer goods have been hoarded by preppers in the past, and warnings have been issued already. The consumer products giant Procter & Gamble warned that it was facing issues in China as its second strongest market for sales and profits. Clorox, known for its bleach and wipes to fight germs and other messes, was among the handful of stocks that rose on February 24 when the Dow fell 1,000 points in a single session. The CDC’s own COVID-19 warning says to use alcohol-based hand sanitizers that contain at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available in its prevention update.
It may seem unlikely on the surface that gun sales would rise over people having to stay home because their workplaces and their kid’s schools are closed. There is certainly a correlation with a presidential election year where gun control is being debated. American Outdoor Brands, the parent of Smith & Wesson, has seen a strong surge in its shares since late in January, and the start of February despite the stock market’s decline. Vista Outdoor, considered to be the top ammunition maker, saw its shares surge from near $7 late in January to over $10 shortly after earnings, although it has back down under $8.50 after the strong sell-off.
Communications is an essential issue for preppers of all sorts. The public should have at least some concerns about their communications tools today if they are in need of an update or a phone refresh in the months ahead. The mighty Apple already warned of consumer misses and supply chain issues in China already, and more recently one of the world’s top outsourced manufacturing giants that serve Cisco, Apple, HP, Amazon and other tech giants that their factories are running at about two-thirds of capacity.
Doomsday prepping has not been as popular as late as it was just 5 to 10 years ago. After all, the economy has continued to ”improve” and unemployment has reached lows of the modern era. It is probably not in the cards for most of the public to run out and buy up all the supplies needed to survive the end of the world if the coronavirus is the biggest concern. That said, some instances already have been seen where supplies are being sought out, and those old doomsday preppers have at least a few lessons that would apply to the current coronavirus outbreak.
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