Skip to content   Skip to footer navigation 

CHOICE CEO calls out businesses taking advantage of the COVID-19 coronavirus

Op-ed: Alan Kirkland says watch out for misleading advertising, price gouging and shonky health claims.

empty toilet paper aisle marrickville metro lead
Last updated: 11 March 2020

Over the past few weeks, as the effects of the COVID-19 coronavirus on Australian communities have grown, we've seen people respond in very different ways.

We've seen healthcare workers turning up every day to help people who have symptoms and are worried. We've seen education authorities move rapidly in response to risks, closing schools temporarily and then quickly reopening them once the risks are contained. We've seen calm, clear advice from virologists and our chief medical officers.

On the less positive side, we've seen products like hand sanitiser being sold at outrageous mark-ups in online marketplaces. We've also seen widespread reports of panic buying. 

empty dry goods shelves coronovirus scare

Worried people are panic-buying groceries, clearing supermarket shelves.

As a consumer organisation, we made a deliberate decision not to report on shortages of toilet paper and other groceries. The last thing we wanted to do was make the situation worse by making people feel like they needed to stockpile household goods. 

But it's easy to understand why some people felt the need to do this. These are uncharted waters, and for many people, the security of knowing that they'll be able to feed their kids if something goes wrong is an important anchor.

What worries us most is the risk that businesses will take advantage of these times to tap into our anxieties in ways that drive their own profits

At CHOICE, we've been closely watching how businesses are responding. While we're not often on the same side of a debate as the major supermarket chains, some have done a good job so far of reassuring people about supplies and imposing limits on the quantities of items like toilet paper.

alan kirkland bupa tweet coronavirus

Insurer Bupa used the threat of COVID-19 to encourage anxious people to take our their health cover.

What worries us most is the risk that businesses will take advantage of these times to tap into our anxieties in ways that drive their own profits. 

We've already seen Bupa using images of toilet paper shortages in online ads to push private health insurance. 

Given that the response to COVID-19 is being led by our public health system, including GPs subsidised through Medicare, this was in poor taste. Bupa have since taken down this ad following our coverage. 

Over the coming weeks, CHOICE won't be telling you how to wash your hands or when to stay home from work. We'll leave health advice to the health experts. But rest assured, we will continue providing advice on your rights as a consumer and fighting to defend them. 

Already, our experts have been hard at work answering questions about whether travel insurance covers you for COVID-19 and how the coronavirus affects your super.

We're actively looking out for businesses that see this as an opportunity to take advantage of people who are worried – through misleading advertising, price gouging or shonky health claims. If you see something that affects consumers and think we should know about it, get in touch: newstips@choice.com.au or tell us at community.choice.