Unless they have top-notch recipes for butt-wipe casserole or plan on building papier mâché bunkers to outlast the viral apocalypse, most of the people who recently stocked up on toilet paper probably misdirected their dollars and their efforts. All too often, that’s what happens when people are unprepared and find themselves scrambling to respond to a crisis without a plan. But no matter what the headline writers say, panic-buying isn’t prepping. Let’s talk about the best way to weather the current COVID-19 situation.
Preparing for bad times depends an awful lot on what kind of bad times are most likely to come your way. Is it an extinction-inducing meteor-strike? You just need a good supply of your favorite intoxicants for that. But something more survivable, like an earthquake, power outage, or, perhaps, a global pandemic, requires plans, supplies, and effort.
As it happens, the American Red Cross maintains a whole section of its website devoted to emergency preparedness. Among other suggestions, it recommends that everybody keep a two-week supply of food and water at all times. That means you’re already supposed to have those goodies tucked away.
Two weeks worth of food and water isn’t enough to see you through what epidemiologists say could be “a matter of months rather than weeks”—with an optimistic estimate of two months—but it would see you through the initial panic so that you could wait until grocery store shelves are restocked and you’ve thought through your needs so that you can shop accordingly.
I think two weeks is a good starting point, but not nearly enough. What defines “enough” depends on your tolerance for risk, your resources, and the situation to which you’re responding. If quarantines, curfews, and social distancing really do last a few months, and your business or employer folds during that time, you will wish that you had supplies for “a matter of months rather than weeks.” To that point, the website The Prepared recommends that during the COVID-19 pandemic you should “be able to shelter in your home for at least two weeks—90 days is even better—without leaving for supplies or outside help.”
But that sounds expensive—and it really will be, if you try to do it all in one Saturday shopping trip (although probably not as pricey as surviving on takeout, as some people suggest). It won’t be so noticeable if you space out your purchases, and less painful still if you can draw on a vegetable and herb garden for fresh, dried, or canned additions. Pick up a little on each shopping trip in terms of extra storable foods that you like to eat (don’t buy Spam if you hate Spam) so that your stock increases over time. Then use the goods that you purchased first while continuing to add to the pantry to build and then maintain your supply.
My family uses Julie Languille’s Prepper’s Food Storage: 101 Easy Steps to Affordably Stock a Life-Saving Supply of Food as a guide. Languille prioritizes the foods you should purchase, so that you don’t end up with hundreds of boxes of pasta but no protein or ingredients for sauce or side dishes; the goal is a balanced diet. The book features charts detailing how much of any given food you should purchase given the size of your household and your target prep time. The author also points out that you should adjust her recommendations according to your preferences and any dietary restrictions: Three gallons of olive oil for three people to eat over a year sounds light to me, but we practically swim in the stuff.
Languille’s book also helpfully includes cost estimates, canning techniques, and dehydration tips for turning garden produce into something you can eat years later.
Of course, there are things outside food and water to consider, too. Don’t forget your meds! This is personal for me, since I had an eye stroke a few years ago. I recovered remarkably well, but add-on complications mean that I have to use daily eyedrops or else I’ll eventually go blind. Do I stockpile my eyedrops in case there is an interruption in the supply? You better believe it. I even keep a supply of a med that I stopped using because of the side effects, but which still works.
If you’re in a similar situation, make sure you have a supply of meds to last through a shortage—or just to help you avoid extra trips to a pharmacy full of sick people during a pandemic. The American Red Cross suggests that “at a minimum” you should have a seven-day supply; I keep several months’ worth at any time and recommend that, if possible, you do the same.
Basic first-aid supplies are also a must, along with the skills to use them. You don’t want to have to run out for band-aids and antibiotic ointment if your kid takes a tumble. An expanded list of potentially helpful medical supplies—everything from steri-strips to burn gel to chest seals—is offered by The Prepared. Keep in mind that more advanced tools won’t do you much good if you don’t learn to use them.
Network with neighbors, friends, and family! Yes, even in a pandemic (although you should exercise caution). Do this because it’s a good thing to check on people, make sure they’re OK, and help them along through what is a tough time for everybody. If you need to make a grocery run anyway, picking up some extras for the elderly folks next door isn’t a hardship.
Work with others, too, because you may have complementary resources and skill sets. If you’re an EMT with kids, and your accident-prone friend has a supply of homeschooling materials, you can make life a lot easier for each other.
To get through COVID-19, you’re going to have to scrimp, buy what’s available, and make do. Yeah, that’s gonna suck a bit. But you will make it through. That’s especially true if you follow the above advice and work with others for mutual assistance. Don’t wait for guidance or mandates from authorities who may lack your values, important information, or simple decency—take responsibility for yourself and cooperate with others who have done the same.
And you’ll be better prepared.