Kiwis trying to make money off coronavirus, appals microbiologist

Jihee Junn writes for The Spinoff

COVID-19 related price gouging? Yep, it's happening. Here are just a few things people are trying to sell for crazy prices off the back of coronavirus.

Market demand can be a scary thing. One minute you're buying a pack of disposable face masks for $15, the next thing you know you're shelling out three times that amount because everyone, everywhere, is freaking the f*** out. 

Fear can make us do irrational things, leading to some people taking advantage of this moment to capitalise on panic buying consumers. In the wake of New Zealand's first case of COVID-19 being officially confirmed on Friday afternoon, Stuff reported that a pack of two respirator face masks were selling for $100 on Trade Me (Mitre 10 sells these for $10.73) and a set of four travel-size hand sanitisers for $50, or $12.50 each (Kmart sells these for $3.50).

Trade Me's head of marketplace Lisa Stewart says that while profiteering behaviour from sellers "isn't everyone's cup of tea" the company doesn't regulate prices of items. 

"We know that some sellers are attempting to make money from this event and charging high prices for items like sanitiser and face masks while stores across the country run low or sell out," says Stewart. "But at the end of the day, these are trades between a willing buyer and a willing seller and the prices are simply market forces at work."

Meanwhile, in the US, Amazon has been cracking down on third-party merchants who violate its policies while selling items related to the new coronavirus disease. The ecommerce platform's Fair Pricing policy means that sellers found to be price gouging (charging excessive or unconscionable prices) or making misleading claims will have their listings blocked or removed. In a statement, auction website eBay also warned users that listings attempting to profit from "tragedies and disasters (such as the Coronavirus outbreak)" were prohibited.

Kiwis trying to make money off coronavirus, appals microbiologist
Photo credit: The Spinoff.

In the last week, Trade Me has seen 76,000 searches for 'face mask' – up 3,500 percent on the year prior – with 21,000 of those happening on Saturday. Searches for 'hand sanitiser' have been even more astronomical, increasing 20,000 percent on last year with 25,000 hits in the last week. At the time of writing, there are currently 170 listings for hand sanitiser and over 8,000 listings for face masks onsite 

But it's not just hand sanitisers and face masks people are trying to profit from: further down the Trade Me rabbit hole sees one user from Christchurch selling "full coronavirus survival kits" for $139 each. Each kit contains 10 respirator masks, 100 latex gloves, a pair of safety glasses, alcoholic wet wipes, and disposable overalls. The seller even tells one user they can supply them with 1,000 units through international shipping. 

On a similar note, one user from Thames is selling their own coronavirus kit for "all you foolish Auckland humans". The kit is comprised of a small bottle of hand sanitiser, a roll of toilet paper, and a box of Finding Nemo tissues. "All second hand but in good order". Currently, the highest bid stands at two whole dollars with four days left for the auction to go (a bargain, get in!).  

In another stroke of marketing genius, a user from Tauranga is selling an anti-virus "hands-free door opener" for $58, excluding shipping. The listing describes the door opener – a StepNPull – as being used at multinationals such as Boeing, Facebook, Coca-Cola, and Google, warning there's "very short supply in NZ at the moment with the coronavirus outbreak". To be fair, $58 for a StepNPull is pretty reasonable – they're sold for US$29.95 online (approximately NZ$48).

If memorabilia is more your thing, the NZ Herald reported last week of someone selling a coronavirus-inspired necklace

"It depicts – yep, the dreadful new COVID-19 virus. So on that subject, we wish to acknowledge that this is a serious disease with serious consequences," the listing says. "Our hearts go out to those affected. But this piece expresses more than a solemn acknowledgement… an expression of the omnipresence of this awful virus" based on the zeitgeist concept – the 18th to 19th-century German philosophy of the spirit or mood of a particular period of history.

If that leaves you frothing with excitement, I'm sorry to say you're out of luck – the COVID-19 necklace was sold after 14 bids for $25

The pièce de résistance, however, is this one: the covid19.co.nz domain name being sold on Trade Me for $1,000. "Create an opportunity for yourself and take advantage of this highly sort [sp] after domain name," the seller writes. "Start an online website. Rank high in search results."

When I contacted the seller, Simon, to ask why he was doing this and whether he'd received much interest from potential buyers, he replied: "I thought perhaps there could be a market for selling sanitiser and face masks online while covid19 is starting to spread. I do not have the contacts or expertise to make a cost-effective site, so have decided to sell it.

"There has been a bit of interest. Are you interested?"

On a serious note though, it's kind of sad to see people trying to make a quick buck off a global disease. Microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles, who's been the driving force behind our coverage of COVID-19, says she's appalled at people trying to take advantage of the situation to make a quick profit. 

"I was both really mad and really sad and very disappointed that Trade Me won't take any action," she says. "We should be showing our best selves at a time like this, not trying to fleece our friends and neighbours.

"All I can ask people is that they don't spend their money. Stick to soap and water for washing your hands, and don't worry if you don't have any facemasks. I don't."

Jihee Junn is a staff writer at The Spinoff.

The Spinoff.

Contact Newshub with your story tips:
news@newshub.co.nz