Much about the pandemic sweeping across the world is unprecedented, but one aspect is all too familiar: price gouging in the wake of a disaster.
In New York police arrested a man who had stockpiled medical gear, allegedly selling it for a 700% mark-up.
Indonesian authorities seized 600,000 masks from hoarders. In Italy the government launched a probe into sky-high online prices for basic protective equipment.
Such crackdowns are popular. Who could possibly endorse disaster profiteering? Many economists, as it turns out.
To be clear, it is not that they want the public to miss out on life-saving products. Quite the contrary.
They believe that soaring prices stimulate greater output, and that policies to cap costs might limit supplies and so do more harm than good.
In 2012 the University of Chicago surveyed 32 eminent economists about legislation that banned price gouging during a weather-related emergency.
Only three supported the ban; more than half criticised it. Similar views have been aired in recent weeks.
An economist with the Cato Institute, a conservative think-tank, lamented the "madness" of anti-gouging rules,
saying that profits are what entice firms to meet rising demand for safety equipment.
Yet a closer look at one key piece of equipment—masks—during the coronavirus crisis shows that this standard view needs revamping.
Economists are normally loth to tamper with prices, the most basic element of any market. But little about this pandemic has been normal.
Price signalling alone would have been inadequate to the challenge of ensuring vast increases in supply.