With covid I've seen many calls to leave things for others:
- Don't buy WIC-eligible items, leave them for people who can only buy those specific items.
- Don't use grocery delivery services, leave the slots for people who can't go to stores.
- Don't buy masks, leave them for healthcare workers.
- Don't buy groceries at the beginning of the month, leave them for people using EBT, which renews on the first.
Let's set aside for the moment whether these are accurate,  does this kind of thing work? These are all cases where at the current price there are many more people who want the thing than people who can supply the thing. In normal times the price would rise until these balanced, but in emergencies our society has chosen not to allow that. Let's say you're considering buying store-brand kidney beans, a WIC-eligible item, the last one on the shelf. If you choose not to buy it, what happens?
One possibility is that it stays on the shelf until someone who can only buy the store brand of kidney beans comes along, and they're able to buy it. Another is that someone who doesn't know to look for the WIC symbol comes along, and they buy it instead.
There are about 7M people covered by WIC in the US, out of a population of 330M, so 1 in 50 shoppers is a decent estimate for what fraction care about the WIC status of items. This means that whether leaving it for someone else is likely to work depends enormously on whether you expect most of society to be going along with it. If it's just you and a few other scrupulous people, probably someone else who isn't on WIC buys the kidney beans, while if nearly everyone is doing this then it probably works.
The thing is, though, getting everyone on board with one of these, distributing the message widely so that everyone hears it, explaining the details of why it matters so people agree and go along with it, is really hard! And pretty much all the time, instead of putting out calls for individuals to leave things for others it makes more sense for sellers to apply restrictions. For example, UK supermarkets have been trying to restrict delivery to vulnerable people and US supermarkets have been designating hours for vulnerable people and essential workers.
Avoiding things in the hope that someone who especially needs them will be able to get them instead usually won't work, and isn't a very good altruistic tradeoff. If you do want to improve distribution in situations like this, encouraging sellers to prioritize is likely much more valuable. Alternatively, look for ways to shift demand to other things and work around the shortage.
 For example, in MA distribution of EBT is staggered throughout the month, but "don't buy on 4/1" was still going around in local groups here.
Comment via: facebook
I think it's better to say "Don't buy masks through channels healthcare workers would use". I think it's the time to buy masks from China via Amazon.
There are plenty of Chinese vendors that are using factories that aren't FDA certified.
It's possible that the masks won't arrive or won't be up to the quality standards but I think they are likely better then home-made cloth masks. If the masks won't arrive because customs takes the masks to be used for other purposes Amazon has good policies to get you your money back.
Alright, I'll push back a little.
I think your numbers are off. My understanding (mostly from this NYT piece) is that WIC also renews the first of the month, at least in many areas. Many people were hit extra hard in March (less income, less support available from community orgs, less food from work or supplies from daycare). I would expect that on Apr 1-2, it could easily have been 1 in 25 shoppers who were WIC-eligible, or even much higher. And, making up numbers, I am going to say that for any given WIC-eligible SKU, maybe half of WIC participants and 10% of other shoppers would want that item. So of people who might buy that can of kidney beans, I could easily believe 1 in 5 or even 1 in 3 were WIC. WIC products are often *more expensive* than similar non-WIC options, because they have built-in, non-price-sensitive demand.
Yes, it would probably be better if we could set aside 3 hours on Apr 1 for WIC and EBT shopping only. It would come with tons of its own issues, but it is at least theoretically possible. But, I think individual actions those couple of days, in parts of the country where those were the relevant days, have more impact than you are guessing.
I do think that it can be a problem when the government or grocery stores try to determine who 'deserves' masks, or delivery slots, where there isn't a litmus test like WIC or EBT. The availability of these things have not been able to keep up with demand, and there is no way I can see to allocate them appropriately short of some application process that will take a lot of time to set up and probably still miss-allocate.
Should all masks go to medical workers? As a first priority, probably yes. But what about our friend whose kid came out of the NICU a month ago? Does that family not 'deserve' masks to try to keep their baby alive, too? What about immunocompromised and asthmatics who are performing essential jobs outside of healthcare? Or those that take care of senior citizens? At some point 'think twice, and then a third time, before ordering masks that might save someone else's life' starts to look like about as good as we can do at allocation.
Similarly, I would love it if there were a system where when doctors order a quarantine, they can put that person's name in a database for delivery priority. Same with high-risk individuals. As it is, many folks under medical quarantine are relying on friends and neighbors - often elderly friends and neighbors - to deliver groceries. Or in some cases they aren't eating well because they can't get groceries for weeks.
Until these shortages are over or these systems are set up to address them, I do think there is non-negligible marginal benefit to pushing a 'to each according to need' mentality. Many people are looking for small ways to help those hardest hit, and I think this falls into that category.
When accurate, of course. If someone posts encouraging action based on information that is not locally valid, there is no reason not to gently correct that!