[imagesource: Getty Images]
As the coronavirus (or COVID-19) continues to sow fear around the world, with the real-time tracker showing more than 95 000 confirmed cases and close to 3 300 deaths, the stockpiling begins.
America’s wealthiest citizens are looking at full bodysuits, holiday homes as bunkers, private jets and other extreme measures, whereas others are just snapping up bottled water and milk and toilet paper.
It’s happening right around the world, and the BBC decided to look into the psychology of what drives panic buying.
To begin, some stats:
Mass demand for rice and instant noodles in Singapore prompted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to assure the public there was enough to go around. In Auckland, New Zealand, supermarket spending shot up 40% last Saturday compared to the same day a year ago. And shoppers in Malaysia wanting to pad “pandemic pantries” – grocery hoards to fill people’s kitchens until the crisis dies down – have driven an 800% increase in weekly hand sanitiser sales.
These are the real-world consequences of panic buying – a phenomenon that happens in the face of a crisis that can drive up prices and take essential goods out of the hands of people who need them most (such as face masks for health workers).
We’ve spoken about face masks already – if you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected coronavirus infection.
Experts say fear of the unknown is the root cause of panic buying, and basic rationality often flies out of the window.
Then again, when you have ‘Dumb and Dumber’, also known as Donnie and Boris, running the show, the fear is real.
I’m a big fan of this comment:
“It is rational to prepare for something bad that looks like it is likely to occur,” says David Savage, associate professor of behavioural and microeconomics at the University of Newcastle in Australia, who’s written about the rationality behind stocking up in a crisis. However: “It is not rational to buy 500 cans of baked beans for what would likely be a two-week isolation period.”
How may baked beans do you really need, man?
Perhaps some people are just hoping for a reason to stay indoors for a few weeks, and catch up on all those Netflix shows they’ve added to ‘My List’ but haven’t had a chance to watch.
Sadly, these panic buys can often lead to price hikes in basic goods and supplies (like an Uber surcharge, but for household essentials), and there are many examples of face masks and so-called ‘preventative gear’ being flogged for a small fortune online:
In the case of a hurricane or flood, most people have a fair idea of the items they may need in the event of a blackout or a water shortage. But since it’s unclear at this stage just what effects Covid-19 will have, there’s a lot of uncertainty driving this spending.
Panic buying, [Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist ] says, is fuelled by anxiety, and a willingness to go to lengths to quell those fears: like queueing for hours or buying way more than you need.
Let’s break briefly to talk about a uniquely Australian situation, where buying toilet paper has become almost Mad Max-like.
One person goes overboard on the TP, and all hell breaks loose. Mashable reporting:
To be clear, there is absolutely no need for Australians to stockpile what’s fondly known here as bog roll. The majority of the country’s TP is made within Australia, and is unlikely to be impacted by the coronavirus outbreak at this stage. The current scarcity has been entirely caused by hordes of people grabbing more toilet paper than they reasonably need…
Primarily, people seem to be buying toilet paper purely because it’s what everyone else is doing. Several shoppers told Australian website 10 daily that seeing the amount of toilet paper others were grabbing made them worried about supply, so they were getting in while they could. It’s essentially a stampede.
FOMOOTP – fear of missing out on toilet paper.
In Sydney, there were even reports that a toilet paper-related argument ended in a knife being pulled.
Much like you don’t need 500 tins of baked beans to see you through two weeks, you don’t need thousands of loo rolls.
And if you do, I suggest you reexamine your wiping technique. Should I do it? Yeah, why not – here’s an explainer video on how to wipe your arse properly.
OK, back to the psychology of it all:
Panic buying helps people feel in control of the situation, experts say.
“Under circumstances like these, people feel the need to do something that’s proportionate to what they perceive is the level of the crisis,” Taylor says. “We know that washing your hands and practicing coughing hygiene is all you need to do at this point.
“But for many people, hand-washing seems to be too ordinary. This is a dramatic event, therefore a dramatic response is required, so that leads to people throwing money at things in hopes of protecting themselves.”
Throwing money at things does often solve the problem, but your beans and loo roll won’t actually prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
There’s also a sense of FOMO in place, and a herd mentality that I would liken to South Africans spending big on Black Friday.
So many of the deals in this country are utter shite, but everyone else is doing it, so spend and spend quickly:
“[Panic buying is] getting excessive play in social media and news media, and that amplifies the sense of scarcity, which worsens the panic buying,” Taylor says. “There’s these snowball effects of a further increased sense of urgency.”
“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,” he says.
Do you really need to rush out and buy bog roll, beans, and anything else you might need to ensure your quarantine goes smoothly?
No – just start with washing your hands for now.
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