Images of crowds outside supermarkets and fights breaking out over toilet roll and other essentials have flooded social media over the past few weeks.
If any two genres of images have come to define the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, they are likely to be either health workers wearing face masks or empty aisles in supermarkets.
That hasn’t stopped the influx of images around the world of shoppers flooding supermarkets and leaving behind in their wake, barren supermarket shelves gutted of all produce.
Though the media focus has largely been on Western states, such as the US, France, the UK, and Australia, similar outbreaks of panic buying have taken place in Cairo in Egypt and Manilla in the Philippines.
In Hong Kong, a delivery man was robbed of 600 rolls of toilet paper by a suspect armed with a knife.
Authorities have gone to great lengths to ease concerns and relay to customers that there is no need to panic buy.
The British government, for example, has assured shoppers that there is no ongoing shortage of food and supplies in the country, and that panic buying may create unnecessary strain on vulnerable groups, such as older people, those with dietary requirements, and the disabled.
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has similarly pleaded with his compatriots not to hoard products, calling the trend 'ridiculous’ and ‘un-Australian’.
Even in countries with restrictions on movement connected to the coronavirus outbreak, exceptions have been made that allow food stores and pharmacies to be kept open so that citizens have access to essentials.
This is evident in Italy, which has implemented a lockdown except for people walking their pets and going to buy food.
While not a universal phenomenon as some countries continue to have well stocked supermarkets, the prevalence of panic buying across geographically and culturally distant countries suggests a common cause rooted in psychology rather than habits or traits tied to individual countries or regions.
Anxiety and control
Psychiatrists have long established a link between emotional distress and uncertainty on one hand, and the phenomenon of hoarding on the other.
The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the upheaval of normality for a massive part of the population and for many people accompanying that absence of normality is a pressing need to feel in control of the situation irrespective of whether what they do is actually helpful.
Nobody really needs a year’s supply of toilet paper or hand sanitiser. The pandemic, even in its worst case scenario will have likely died down by then. Nor is society likely to breakdown to such a degree that having access to ample supply of toilet paper will proffer significant advantage.
Nevertheless, shopping and ensuring adequate supply of essentials, is one of the few things people can do to overcome the feeling of helplessness in the face of possible calamity.
“When people feel uncertain, they tend to focus on things that bring them certainty,” neuroeconomist Uma Karmarkar told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
“Most of us don’t have the ability to make new vaccines or enact new policies, but the one action that we can control, that feels like we are doing something, is to stock up on supplies,” she added.
Individual behaviour turns into herd instinct with help from media reporting and social media trends.
Steven Taylor, author of The Psychology of Pandemics, explained to the South China Morning Post that items that do not have much value in emergencies, such as toilet paper, come to symbolically represent safety when images of people hoarding the product are beamed out repeatedly to the masses.
“I think it probably stuck out in the dramatic images in social media because it was quite clear, the packets are quite distinctive and it’s become associated in the minds of people as a symbol of safety,” the professor at the University of British Columbia said.
The net effect of such behaviour results in the calming of nerves and a return to some semblance of normality.
The coronavirus pandemic is expected to drag on for months, with its effects becoming all the more real for people as they begin to be impacted by it directly.
It is possible that as time goes on, more and more people will become acclimated to the ‘new normal’, we may begin to experience fewer scenes of panic at supermarkets.
Until then, people will continue to calm their own anxieties, even if it means inconvenience for those less fortunate.