This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
From stockpiling face masks to fighting over loo roll, coronavirus has laid bare how quickly people can react completely irrationally to the unknown. Granted, the panic hasn't been helped by sensationalist media coverage and the spread of false information, but the level of mania has been kind of alarming.
Despite leaders urging calm in northern Italy, for example, residents have flocked to shops, clearing shelves of food and other staples. Elsewhere, the panic has led to a toilet paper shortage in parts of China and Australia, where scammers are reselling packs for astronomic prices. More concerning is the stockpiling of respirators and medicine, when manufacturers in India are already warning of shortages.
Given the number of people I've witnessed losing their cool over the last few days, it seemed like a good time to talk to someone who has been preparing for this very moment for a very long time. Giulio is a hiking coach who became a prepper two years ago and now lives with ten days' worth of supplies: a packed rucksack, a compact solar panel, a power bank, a gas stove (with spare canisters), a water bottle with filter, a first aid kit and more.
When I asked him if the coronavirus has changed anything about his daily life, he said, "The only difference is that, for the past week, my girlfriend has been working from home."
Giulio and other preppers have been watching the recent supermarket sweeps with amusement. "They used to call us lunatics, but now I'm getting phone calls from people asking me what they should buy," said Vincenzo, a long-time prepper and the author of two chapters in a book called Prepping: How to Prepare for Metropolitan Catastrophes.
Despite feeling vindicated, Vincenzo told me he's worried about people's behaviour. "If you want to stock up, you shouldn't do it in times of chaos, [when] you end up buying random stuff for a fortune," he said. "Last-minute panic is exactly what should be avoided."
The fear is shared by Alessandro, who runs Portale Sopravvivenza, one of Italy's biggest prepping and survivalism websites. "People seem to be in a complete frenzy," he said. "I live in the Aosta Valley region and you have little shops in remote spots that have been raided by tourists, not to mention the race for face masks. The loss of rationality and reason happened a lot more easily than I expected."
Thanks to coronavirus, Portale Sopravvivenza has seen visits skyrocket, with most clicks leading to information on gas masks and supplies. "From the analytics I've noticed it's mostly new users," said Alessandro.
This is not necessarily a bad sign, he told me, but shows that more people are coming to the same realisation he once did: "Prepping doesn't mean fearing a nuclear apocalypse or a zombie invasion, but recognising that the social and financial system we live in is a lot more fragile than we think."
Both Vincenzo and Alessandro believe the past few weeks should prompt us to seriously reflect on our readiness for future crises – but they're under no illusion this will actually happen.
Even some within the prepper community have started acting irrationally. "If you go on the Facebook groups you can see that even some among us some have given into paranoia," said Giulio, pointing out that some preppers are also now stocking up on face masks, hand sanitiser and even weapons, in preparation for true societal collapse.
Giulio admitted he's not entirely unaffected by the news of lockdowns and quarantines, and said he worries about further instability. At the same time, he pointed out that climate change is already causing deaths and damage to economies, and is likely to leave us far worse off than a single epidemic.
The World Health Organisation estimates that, between 2030 and 2050, the climate emergency will cause 250,000 deaths each year. According to the European Environment Agency, in Italy alone air pollution already causes about 80,000 deaths a year. In financial terms, the IPCC estimates that, by 2050, the climate crisis will cost the world economy between €7.2 trillion and €13.4 trillion.
It's also worth noting that global warming can play an important part in the development and spread of epidemics, because it alters ecological relationships that affect the transmission of infectious diseases. In other words, rising ocean temperatures and extreme weather events can spread disease, too.
Making things worse, by damaging permafrost – the oldest layer of ice on the planet – we risk waking up ancient viruses and bacteria that have remained dormant until now. In 2016 in Siberia, for example, the melting of a permafrost layer revealed the carcass of a reindeer infected with anthrax, leading to an epidemic that killed 2,000 reindeer, hospitalised 96 people and killed a 12-year-old child.
But it's possible to see a small positive in our reaction to the spread of coronavirus. Last week, the Italian branch of Fridays for Future said the global response actually offers a glimmer of hope in showing that it is possible for leaders make rapid and unprecedented decisions. Perhaps when it comes to future threats – and particularly climate change – we can learn from preppers that early prevention is better than containment.