Last Saturday afternoon, Lucia, a 27-year-old marketing consultant, decided to head to her nearest shop in Madrid, Spain, to pick up some routine food supplies. What started as a quick errand turned into a four-hour nightmare, wandering several stores, seeing people fighting over toilet paper and canned tomatoes and navigating checkout lanes filled with hundreds of shoppers amid a state of emergency declaration over the COVID-19 pandemic.
This apocalyptic scene of people desperately panic buying toilet paper has become one of the most repeated images seeping through social media. From Wuhan and Hong Kong to Milan and California shoppers have been clearing grocery store shelves in response to coronavirus outbreak. This psychological action is often referred to as “panic buying.”
As the outbreak of the virus has escalated, many have left their homes in search for supplies and basic necessities to deal with the possibility of the coronavirus keeping them in confinement for weeks or even months to come. First were surgical masks, then hand sanitizers and soon coronavirus panic buyers starting to snatch up one commodity in particular: toilet paper. Comparable panic purchasing also precedes snowstorms and typhoons. However, the widespread existence of the coronavirus outbreak— together with exposure to massive amounts of information encouraged by social media — means that fear today spreads in forms never seen in past epidemics, such as the 2003 SARS outbreak triggered by a similar virus.
While the CDC and the WHO have recommended within their preventive measures, the use of antibacterial gel, disinfectant products along with frequent hand washing. Citizens across the globe have chosen to over-purchase toilet paper, a product that does not offer any special protection whatsoever against the virus, leaving a lot of us shocked by their peculiar behaviour. Nevertheless, what are the motives behind panic buying? Moreover, why are so many people stockpiling toilet paper as if it was a staple of impending emergencies?
Experts in consumer psychology argue that such irrational behaviour is a clear example of herd mentality. Upon seeing empty shelves, people experience fear and a need to act even if they do not know what to do about it. Panic buying is a correlated effect produced by crowd behaviour, the further pictures and videos of stockpiling that appeared on social media, the more panicky response that ensued.
“If everyone else on the Titanic is running for the lifeboats, you’re going to run too, regardless if the ship’s sinking or not.” — Steven Taylor
When one sees someone in the store, shopping as a result of panic, it can cause a contagion effect of alarm, which coupled with statements of emergency and strict containment measures, has caused society to turn to stores for toilet paper, masks, milk in gallons, and in some cities across the United States for guns and ammunition.
As Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia, and author of “The Psychology of Pandemics,” told CNN “when people are told something dangerous is coming, but all you need to do is wash your hands, the action does not seem proportionate to the threat.” he said. “Special danger needs special precautions.”
Shortages generate a state of panic in the face of the unknown. The novelty of the pandemic, along with the inconsistency of the information available and the governments’ mixed messages, people have resorted to extreme measures of control triggered by our biology of fear. The phenomenon of panic is a natural response that unleashes in situations of lack of control, whether real or not. Human beings are the only creatures capable of imagining and assuming life-threatening conditions, and fear is a rational foundation fed by irrational and emotional protective actions.
Panic-shopping is already doing some serious harm since it can push up prices and force vital goods out from the hands of those who need them most.
As reflected by Ben Oppenheim, senior director of Metabiota, a San Francisco-based infectious disease research company on a recent BBC interview “Panic is a subjective, emotional state; it is probably true that panic buying is ultimately a psychological mechanism to deal with our fear and uncertainty; a way to assert some control over the situation by taking action.”
Mental health professionals see control as a central social necessity. With a virus that is highly contagious and can turn lethal, this outbreak is in significant ways breaching a feeling of control. For some toilet paper represents a way to maintain control over hygiene and cleanliness but also a sense of safety in feeling prepared over an unparalleled crisis.
Hansa Pankhania, a therapist and member of the British Counseling and Psychotherapy Association, told HuffPost U.K. that panic buying, which is related to helplessness, fear and loss of control, is a reflection of each individual’s desire to help themselves in this predicament. “ When we have no control over the bigger picture, we crave control in our “microworld” — our home and daily routines. And in this case, people are doing it by buying up supplies.”
Panic-shopping is already doing some serious harm since it can push up prices and force vital goods out from the hands of those who need them most. U.S. Surgeon General has pled with the Public to stop purchasing surgical masks, not only because they do not offer adequate protection from COVID-19 coronavirus but also to guarantee that health care personnel have them. Unless policymakers and politicians come up with a way to regain that sense of control, the process of impulse buying, hoarding, and shortages can only intensify.
Buy stuff, by all means, but do it sensibly and with a sense of social responsibility. We all do have a moral duty to look out for others as a society, especially for the most vulnerable, for example, the elderly or the disabled. Hoarding toilet paper or hand sanitizer is not the solution to the coronavirus outbreak. Historical turning points like pandemics are dealt with through collective civic behaviour, and the joining of efforts and encouragement among all of us, after all, it all comes down to how we as a society respond with consideration until we overcome these arduous times.