Yesterday, standing in the middle of the grocery store aisle, I saw a young father with a distraught expression on his face as he look upon the empty shelves of infant fever reducers. He said, under his breath, “I guess I should have come here days ago.” Those were the words of a father staring at the shelves where infant fever reducers should have been. This was not a case of failed inventory-taking on behalf of the store manager; this is the case right now for every store in my small town in Southern Oregon. Afterwards, I thought about how there has to be a better way for citizens to come together in solidarity to ensure that necessary items are available for the community. And something needs to be done to help correct this inordinate mentality of hoarding material goods in a time of potential crisis.
In the midst of the rapidly growing COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world have begun taking measures to fight this disease as the death toll continues to rise among the elderly and others with compromised immune systems. Numerous media outlets have been featuring political, social, and church leaders implementing various rules to mitigate coronavirus transmission. Unfortunately, sensationalism and uncertainty has caused many people to panic, prompting some to rush to their local supermarket to stockpile basic necessities.
In speaking with family and friends abroad, it seems to me that this hoarding mentality has been most predominant in the United States. While there is nothing inherently wrong with stocking up on necessities so as to be prepared for a period of self-quarantining, there certainly is something wrong with overreacting and hoarding, especially when it affects others directly. In considering the moral implications of this hoarding mentality, I think it is fitting to reflect on the importance of 1) the virtue of prudence and 2) an understanding of private property and the community of goods.
The virtue of prudence enables us to consider and judge appropriately the right action to take in a particular circumstance. When someone decides to strip the shelves of a supermarket in this crisis, prudence is precisely what they are lacking. If one took time to exercise reason and consider personal need in proportion to what is to be purchased, it should be clear that buying thirty bottles of hand sanitizer at one time is not proportionate to the end being sought given the special circumstances we are currently in. (Not to mention the serious ethical problem with stockpiling 18,000 bottles of hand sanitizer with the intent of reselling them at marked-up prices!) Yes, it is good to take prudent measures to beat this virus and prepare for the worst. But you do not need a bathtub of Purell to accomplish that goal. Point being: only take what you need.
Nearly every supermarket my family and I have visited in the past week is not only sold out of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but also of crucial infant care items such as formula, infant Tylenol, and diapers. Worse, some of these items have been purchased by people who do not even have children! This points to an obvious lack of foresight on behalf of consumers in considering how their actions will direct affect others. What are parents to do if their children contract the coronavirus and experience high fevers? If there is no access to infant Tylenol, there will have countless parents in emergency rooms with sick children, waiting to see a doctor who is certainly already drained from seeing an overabundance of patients. As we see in the current situations in China and Italy, opportunities for hospitalization are few and far between due to the amount of people who have contracted the virus.
The primary goal is to prevent the spread of this disease, but how can someone prevent a virus from spreading if they are depriving others from the opportunity to destroy the virus for themselves? This time of crisis is undoubtedly frightening to many, and perhaps rightly so, but this makes it even more imperative that people are prudent and considerate of how their actions affect others in their community.
It seems evident that this panic, for many people, stems from lacking a sense of control. One cannot directly control whether or not the virus is transmitted. One can, however, generally control how prepared they are for any given disaster. The motivation for this preparation is understandable, but we cannot simply act precipitously out of fear. Fear, in itself, is not the problem; the problem lies in what we do with that fear. As Americans, we tend to be quite individualistic, but we need to understand the proper place of private property in the context of living in a community and seeking the common good.
Sacred Scripture points to the truth of private property from the commandment “thou shalt not steal” (Ex 20:15), to the command that one shall not covet “anything that is your neighbor’s” (Deut 5:21). It is also true that God has sovereign dominion over all of creation, but the human person has a natural right to material goods in the created order as God extends natural dominion to him as regards the power to make use of them (ST II-II, q. 66, a. 1, ad.1). While it is lawful for man to procure material goods for himself, since these goods are not to be considered under the aspect of absolute dominion, we must be willing to share resources with our neighbor according to need. This is why St. Thomas Aquinas taught that it was sometimes—albeit rarely—morally lawful to obtain the private property of other since it would not be properly considered theft if need renders a privately-owned material good a common one.
What does this have to do with hoarding toilet paper and sanitizer? Simply put, that it is unjust to deny others access to these basic necessities during an epidemic since it damages the common good of society. To own a garage full of toilet paper or an inordinate amount of fever reducers, beyond what is necessary for one’s own security, is morally reprehensible insofar as it deprives others of access to these means of security and overall well-being.
In the end, we need to ensure that fear does not control our actions to the point of irrationality. Take care of yourself and take care of your family, but do not hoard supplies to the detriment of your community. If we neglect to consider the needs of others, then we are acting without right reason—and it also shows of a lack of charity in our hearts, for “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 Jn 4:18). If we are to move toward a perfection in charity, we must heed to the great commandment that we are all called to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:31). May we have the wisdom to recognize that there are many people who need things just as much as we do, if not more. Let us all be good stewards of the many gifts that God has given us.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!