Amid the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, the phenomenon of panic buying has gone full circle. As the pandemic spreads, panic buying that started in Hong Kong became recurrent in Singapore, then in New Zealand, Australia, Italy, the United States and United Kingdom and Japan. Beyond surgical masks, sanitizers and foodstuff, toilet rolls appeared to be the hottest commodity this pandemic season. Naturally, governments all over the world have criticized this anxiety-based "irrational" behavior, but people saw fit to behave in exactly the same way again and again across different localities, regardless of differences in wealth, culture or political systems.
Psychologists have explained that such behavior is spurred on humans' innate desire to assert control over the unknown – an attempt to have a handle over helplessness. Dramatic events do warrant an extraordinary response and hence people go to great lengths to quell fear. It is not a great deal about queueing for hours buying two trolleys of whatever you can get your hands on to avoid risk and feel secure. After all, it is always better to be safe than sorry.
In contrast, sociologists would no doubt view panic buying as a type of collective recurrent behavior, perhaps as a form of deviance that surfaces during "anomic" times exposing the flaws in our societies. The upsize of panic buying means a bonding experience and unifying event, providing the event as a collective trauma in our social memory.
From an economic angle, this behavior would be explained differently. Increased demand would lead to higher prices and price gorging. Securing supplies early therefore would increase security and preclude the possibilities of being left empty handed. Opportunistic entrepreneurs would stockpile for minimum costs and maximum profits, just as ordinary folks would do the same to ensure that their loved ones and friends have access to the commodity. Such acts might not always earn the hoarder money, but it would certainly engender social capital, affection and goodwill.
There is one very plausible but underexplored perspective that may explain the panic buying: Panic buying is edged on by profound mistrust of our political leaders, both in terms of what they said (or did not say) and what they were capable of. Governments have been unable to control public panic simply because people make sense of three hard truths. First, the government is unable to provide a vision as to how the pandemic will unfold, how long it might last and if eventually all will be restored to the normal. Not everyone can believe that their government really has complete control or has a definitive idea as to what is going on in such a scenario. Second, people have little faith in assurances of stockpiles made by governments. Stockpile levels are often kept secret, and even if they do exist, everyone knows stockpiles are finite and therefore access might be an issue. Third, governmental messages are often obscure, misinterpreted and side-lined by social media and rumor mongering. Verification for information is time-consuming if not impossible. Beyond that, individuals can hardly hold governments responsible for misinformation or falsehoods. Panic buying therefore may appear to be necessary if people were to rely on themselves, handle uncertainty and minimize future loss.
National leaders should understand it is part of their responsibility to build faith in their political systems, just as it is to ensure that their policies are appropriate and calibrated to meet the obligations. To engender trust, national leaders must take proactive steps to pre-empt dangers rather than to obfuscate and delay. They must rally the nation to follow the science, lean on experts and tell the truth. If the public perceives that the government is not transparent or making unsubstantiated representations about stockpile levels, this would also fuel mistrust too. Therefore, rather than ad hoc exaltations and false assurances, regular updates from a single channel might be the best way to deal with an anxious public. Ironically, in such times, perhaps the most counterintuitive political strategy of being candid and admitting the extent of what is known to the public might be the most desirable way forward to combat that mistrust.
Each rumor has its own public and audience, but they can only thrive in times of official silence and uncertainty, particularly in social media. Tackling misinformation and addressing erroneous views in social media therefore become a responsibility of the government. Combating profiteering and selfish individualistic behavior is an important second dimension. Rationing and limits on purchases, actively targeting profiteering and perhaps even the strategic release of stockpiles might be the optimal way to deal with this sudden surge of demand. During such times, allowing individual freedoms to prevail might hurt common good. Unless the public gets the message that helping others is actually helping ourselves, collectively we might never get through this pandemic. Therefore, panic buying and devastation following the Covid-19 pandemic are after all self-fulling prophecy.
Sungwon Yoon is Assistant Professor at the program in Health Services & Systems Research, Duke-NUS in Singapore and a visiting scholar at Osaka University.© Japan Today