By now, most of us have seen them — those store shelves cleared of items that didn’t seem hoard-worthy until suddenly they did.
A region’s paranoia is a hard thing to measure in the face of uncertain threats. And in recent days, images of those eerily empty shelves across the country have become iconic. They have come to symbolize our collective hysteria in response to the coronavirus outbreak that has killed thousands of people across the world and at least 11 people in the United States so far.
Those images show that even if we aren’t wearing face masks by the masses in public yet, we are buying them as fast as stores can get them in stock (despite officials pleading for people to stop doing that). They also show that we’re buying a lot more than masks. We are buying toilet paper and canned goods and, some of us, more hand sanitizer than we have hands.
But looking at the picked-over aisles of Target, CVS and other big-name stores only captures one aspect of our retail behavior.
They offer only one measurement of our mass mania.
Of course, this is a dangerous virus. And taking the CDC-approved precautions is both wise and necessary (hand-washing, covering your mouth, etc). But after I found myself squinting at a tiny label on a bare shelf at a Virginia Target to make sure it had indeed once held bleach (it had), I started to wonder whether people in the Washington region were reacting more calmly or frantically than people elsewhere. Were we all equal in our madness, or were there different levels to our lunacy?
To get that answer, I went to a different type of marketplace. I went to a place where people don’t care how they look when they shop, and because of that, tend to let their fears, desperation and willingness to profit off one another’s anxieties go on full display during times of crisis. I went to a place where companies don’t decide what’s for sale or set prices — neighbors do.
I went to Craigslist.
Fair warning: I am not an economist. I’m not even a business writer. So what I’m about to tell you is not based on anything more than my observations from looking at more posts than any person ever should on Craigslist or any other online marketplace.
I searched for coronavirus-related listings in cities across the country. And this is what I found: Those empty-shelf images may capture our collective coronavirus panic, but the posts on Craigslist reveal our coronavirus craziness. And the level of that craziness, for now, differs across regions.
A search of listings in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia area revealed as of Wednesday mostly predictable, practical products.
People were overcharging for surgical masks. A few were selling nebulizers. One person — in a post that warned “be prepared now before the Coronavirus outbreak happens here” — was selling a case of MREs for $100.
For the most part, the posts were (shockingly) reasonable.
In other parts of the country, the word “coronavirus” is being used to try to sell everything from wedding dresses to property.
“Defense Against Coronavirus,” reads the title of one post for a $1.6 million, three-bedroom home near Santa Barbara, Calif.
“Are you concerned about airborne viruses?” it continues. “Live next to the ocean with fresh clean air and breezes.”
Farther south, in the Los Angeles area, a person with $50 to spare can choose between two protections against the virus.
They can buy a “Coronavirus — stay at home drink.” For $45, they get a 16-ounce jar of vodka with Wisconsin ginseng root.
Or if they opt to spend $5 more, they can get a “BABYSITTER Gas Mask Hood for Infants.”
A picture of the mask shows what looks like a plastic suit for space travel. The mask is described as including “an internal feeding bottle that does not compromise the suit’s protective seal.” It also offers this reassurance: more than six hours of “Resistance to Liquid Mustard Penetration.”
In Dallas, you can find a “coronavirus-free gym.” And in Seattle, you can get a “Coronavirus-Free Aircraft.”
“Fly without risk of Coronavirus infection,” that post entices. It lists the price as “Financing available with min. $100K down.”
Then there are the get-rich-quick and too-good-to-be-true offers that promise not just to ease worries but to eliminate them.
“Coronavirus vaccine Kvid -19 — $800,” reads the title of one post.
The description claims that the vaccine comes “directly from the US biotechnology company.” From there, the description dissolves into broken, nonsensical sentences. It reads: “ended waiting for the dreaded virus to take advantage of and give our families a chance and our children to protect.” Of course, there is not yet an approved vaccine for the virus.
There is no telling what will happen in the D.C. area as the virus spreads and the country’s death toll rises, but for now, we seem to have maintained a semblance of sanity amid that marketplace craziness.
We may have to hunt harder for a bottle of bleach, but we aren’t trying to sell one another coronavirus-free spaces and vaccines that don’t exist.
At least, not yet.
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