Consumers vs COVID-19

As the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to develop, it is raising some serious dilemmas for consumers, from scams, to negligent business practice and misinformation.

Consumer protection agencies are taking definitive action, and looking for new ways to share intelligence and best practice to address issues at scale.

In this guest blog, Pamela Coke Hamilton, Director Division on International Trade and Commodities at UNCTAD Teresa Moreira, Head Competition and Consumer Protection Branch (UNCTAD), share their views on how Consumer Protection agencies, and the consumers they seek to protect, can work together during the crisis.

Despite the human suffering and the economic crisis brought upon us by COVID 19, there are those who take the opportunity to profit from the chaos and misfortune of others.

This has opened yet another front in our battle against a global virus: protecting consumers. And it is here where Consumer Protection agencies around the world become central players in this battle.

“[T]here are pestilences and there are victims”, wrote Albert Camus in the Plague, “and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” Today, there are those joining forces with the COVID-19 pandemic. This can take different forms: from misleading business practices to price increases that render goods scarce or unaffordable, affecting not only doctors and nurses in the front line of the battle, but also consumers, particularly the most vulnerable.

The problem is not exclusive to one country.  Many consumers have reported over pricing of essential hygiene consumer products such as masks, hand sanitizers and basic household products. For instance, in Germany the price of masks increased by 3000%, from 0.45 to 13.52 Euro. In Kenya, a supermarket chain was ordered to refund consumers after inflating the prices of hand sanitizers. Consumer protection agencies are reacting and rightly so. France, Greece, India, Italy, Kenya and Nigeria have taken action by introducing price caps.

The exploitative practices go beyond price increases. There has also been a surge in fake products and false claims to trick and mislead consumers.  Mexico closed a laboratory for marketing false COVID-19 tests. The Republic of Korea found 53 false advertisements where 45 businesses stated that using their purifiers and humidifiers would prevent the coronavirus. In these instances, the Republic of Korea took immediate corrective measures in 40 cases and sent requests for correction in others.

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