Empty shelves where Lysol antibacterial virus sprays are usually located at a major supermarket.
PHILIPSBURG–Many supermarkets, pharmacies and other establishments across the island have either run completely out of stock or are running low on hand-sanitisers, face masks, gloves, rubbing alcohol and other virus-killing products since the two cases of COVID-19 (coronavirus) were confirmed in French St. Martin.
Almost all of the supermarkets, pharmacies and shops visited by this newspaper on Tuesday had no hand-sanitisers in stock and most were also out of face masks and had either no or a very low supply of products such as rubbing alcohol.
“One customer came in and bought out our entire stock of hand sanitisers on Sunday,” a salesperson at a neighbourhood supermarket in Union Farm Estate said.
Cost U Less Managing Director Lawson Kilgallen said that establishment had been out of stock of hand-sanitisers since February 26, and it is undetermined at this point when the stock will be replenished.
“Buyers are scrambling,” he told The Daily Herald. “We sold what would have normally been a three-week supply in two days – February 25, and 26.” He attributed the rush to “global awareness of the coronavirus.” He said the ability to react to such a large demand far exceeds manufactures’ ability to deliver.
Other items in demand, of which Cost U Less is also out of stock with undetermined replacement dates, are disinfectant sprays, disinfectant wipes, and rubbing alcohol, Kilgallen said.
At Cost Pro Supermarket in Madame Estate, representative Peter Gittens said the establishment is also out of hand-sanitisers, Lysol Spray and sanitising wipes. These items were sold out on Monday “as soon as persons heard about the confirmed cases on the French side. We also sold a large amount of single-use gloves. We have a few cases left in stock. Also, persons are buying rubbing alcohol as well,” Gittens said.
Luckily for some shoppers, Cost Pro is expecting a shipment of hand-sanitisers and other similar products today, Wednesday, which Gittens said should hit the shelves by late this afternoon.
The rush was also on at Carrefour Market. General Manager Thilak Pillai said the establishment is trying to get hand-sanitisers from different sources due to international shortages. “There is a shortage of it in the market, here and in the US. We had a lot of stock, but it was sold out in the weekend. Every customer was looking for it (and) all customers are picking up disinfectants sprays, wipes and hand-soaps. Some are looking for face masks too,” Pillai noted.
The situation is no different at pharmacies, where residents flocked in the past days to stock up on these items in an effort to step up their hygiene practices to keep the feared virus at bay.
At Philipsburg Pharmacy in town, pharmacist Dick Luttekes said the establishment is out of hand-sanitisers and masks, but added that a shipment is expected soon. Thankfully, there is still a supply of rubbing alcohol, sanitiser wipes, (some) gloves, sufficient Vitamin C and zinc lozenges.
“Yes, there has been a run on masks and sanitisers and vitamins (C, zinc, echinacea). We are close to being out of stock, but expect new stock by the weekend,” the pharmacist assured.
While consumers are scrambling and forking out big bucks to keep the virus at bay, is the scare justified?
Luttekes said the constant stream of the numbers of infected people and countries “spit out by media” creates “a lot of anxiety” amongst consumers.
“The novelty is interesting, since no one has built immune response initially (now already 80,000). So, the fear for a viral disease lives with most people and we are all getting influenced,” he said.
“Corona is a very common cold virus responsible for teary eyes and upper airway infections mostly. This variety, also in most cases causes mild flu-like symptoms with fever, sneezing and coughing. It is pretty contagious when someone is sick, on contact with the coughed saliva drops circulating in the air. Two per cent fatalities (mainly sick and elderly and some healthcare workers) is a serious number competing with aggressive flu strains, but not more.”
According to Luttekes, paper face masks give limited protection. He says it is best for consumers to stick to washing hands regularly, not touching their mouth and face and keeping at least one metre distance from possible patients.
“Initially, there was good reason to quarantine and limit the spread and then eradication of the virus, since it needs humans to multiply. It finally will succumb to the human immune system. Currently, it looks like it better run its course with hygienic measures. The global and economic impact and efforts are not related anymore to prevent a healthcare crisis or economic crises due to prevention of illness. We will see in the coming month.”
According to Luttekes, the mortality rate for infected COVID-19 patients straddles around 2.5 per cent.
He said the worst flu pandemic had been the Spanish Flu in 1918, which killed 50 million persons in a far less populated world over a three-year time span. Back then, travel was incomparably slower with no international flights.
“The coming months will give more clarity if [COVID-19 – Ed.] will peter out. Since we are an international hub in the Caribbean, within the coming weeks it will be clear what percentage of the population it will affect. My hope is still that the circulation will be slower in our tropical climate and the virus will be less a threat than in China. If news reporters keep repeating ‘the deadly virus’, people forget the numbers,” Luttekes said.
“With our frail economy, the last thing we want is confirmed cases in St. Maarten. The impact on cruise and flight tourism will be devastating.”