Did you ever think that you would ever see a day when people will fight over buying a roll of toilet paper? Yet, here we are. Panic buying seems to have become more contagious than the new virus itself as the coronavirus outbreak keeps spreading across the world.
But why are we losing our peace of mind over hoarding irrelevant stuff? And how is hoarding toilet papers even related to washing hands regularly! Why are we becoming so paranoid, when all we need to do is stay safe? The answer is uncertainty.
Uncertainty and panic buying
It makes sense if you want to store some food, water and essentials during an epidemic as you are uncertain about how the virus might affect our society in the coming days. But toilet paper? With the growing number of confirmed victims of COVID-19, countries are taking preventive steps and promoting social distancing to prevent the virus from spreading further. As our future becomes uncertain, a lot of us are starting to panic and becoming increasingly anxious about the whole thing.
But this is not anything new. Mass panic during emergencies is fairly common and is often a bigger threat than the primary disaster itself. Whenever we think that we may be in danger, our fight or flight response kicks in and we make some silly, reckless, and sometimes dangerous, decisions. Buying supplies out of panic has been a rather familiar way for us to deal with uncertainty during catastrophes.
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In case of natural disasters like a flood or hurricane, most of us have a fairly clear idea about what exact supplies we might need to survive the disaster. However, in the case of the coronavirus outbreak, most people are unclear about how it might affect us and what we might need to get through this. It is mostly due to an ambiguous environment of uncertainty that people are panic buying something as simple as toilet paper.
Taking control during coronavirus outbreak
But why are we panicking irrationally instead of preparing to stay safe and protect our families? Because panic is a survival mechanism. In a National Geographic article, Professor Karestan Koenen of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health explains “When you’re seeing extreme responses. It’s because people feel like their survival is threatened and they need to do something to feel like they’re in control.”
What exactly is forcing us to panic buy things that are not even considered essentials? According to a CNBC report, the simple answer may be the psychology of “retail therapy”, believes consumer psychologist Paul Marsden.
Retail therapy is all about buying items and materials to lift our moods and “manage our emotional state.” Marsden adds “It’s about ‘taking back control’ in a world where you feel out of control.” Making purchases provides us a feeling of control and autonomy and makes us feel that we have prepared to face a catastrophe in whatever ways we can.
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The psychology of panic buying
However, there is a significant difference between preparing for a disaster and panic buying during the coronavirus outbreak, believes Steven Taylor, clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia. According to Taylor, panic buying is driven by anxiety and fear of the unknown. Similar levels of mass panic have been witnessed throughout history, such as during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the Y2K scare and the SARS 2003 outbreak.
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According to a BBC report, “Panic buying helps people feel in control of the situation.” Taylor believes “Under circumstances like these, people feel the need to do something that’s proportionate to what they perceive is the level of the crisis. We know that washing your hands and practicing coughing hygiene is all you need to do at this point.”
He adds “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.”
Ben Oppenheim, senior director at Metabiota, an infectious disease research establishment in San Francisco, explains “It’s 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 an action.”
Can panic be a logical response?
David Savage, associate professor of behavioural and microeconomics at the University of Newcastle, Australia, believes stocking up on essentials, even toilet paper, during this coronavirus outbreak is “a perfectly rational response to the situation.”
In an article, he states that stocking up on food and other supplies “is a logical thought process” and “helps people feel they have some level of control over events.” He adds “If the virus comes to your area, you want to be able to reduce your contact with others but also ensure you can survive that withdrawal period.”
But he also points out that panicking and panic buying during the coronavirus outbreak may also be a result of herd mentality to some extent. He says “A herd behaviour is one driven by imitating what others do – these behaviours can be a kind of conditional cooperation with others (for example, yawning).”
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Loss aversion may also be another psychological reason why people are going crazy about buying sanitizing products, Savage adds. He says “Losing $100 feels worse than winning $100,” he says. If we later realise that we needed the toilet paper and we didn’t get it when we had the chance, we will really feel bad.”
Apart from all these social media may also have a role to play in making the global population panic about the COVID-19 pandemic and hoard items unnecessarily. Taylor believes panic buying is “getting excessive play in social media and news media, and that amplifies the sense of scarcity, which worsens the panic buying. There’s these snowball effects of a further increased sense of urgency.”
He concludes, “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.”
Should you panic about coronavirus outbreak?
The coronavirus outbreak is undoubtedly a cause for concern, but there is no need to panic or go on a crazy shopping spree just yet. If you are having panic attacks about the whole situation, then let me tell you that there are some excellent reasons to be optimistic as well.
Here are a few reasons why you should not panic about coronavirus and instead focus on what you can learn from all of this:
1. Diagnostic detection is possible
Since the first symptoms of COVID-19 were identified in patient zero back in December 31, 2019 in China, the virus has been identified and scientists have figured out a way to detect the virus by January 13, 2020.
2. Condition in China is improving
Due to excessive isolation measures across China, the number of patients diagnosed with COVID-19 is reducing. As the situation gets better in different countries, the coronavirus outbreak can be contained and controlled in an easier way.
3. Most cases are “mild”
According to a WHO report, more than 80% of cases experience mild illness and “most commonly reported symptoms included fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath.” However, around “14% experienced severe disease and 5% were critically ill.”
4. Estimated mortality rates are low
Although it is still not clear what the actual death rate may be for COVID-19, most experts believe it is much lower than what we are expecting. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report states “We estimated the case-fatality risk for 2019 novel coronavirus disease cases in China (3.5%); China, excluding Hubei Province (0.8%); 82 countries, territories, and areas (4.2%); and on a cruise ship (0.6%). Lower estimates might be closest to the true value, but a broad range of 0.25%–3.0% probably should be considered.”
5. Patients can heal
Although the coronavirus is worse than the flu, people with the virus can actually heal and get better. A report has revealed that more and more people infected with the coronavirus are getting cured. In fact, the percentage of cured cases is 13 times higher than deaths.
6. Children are comparatively safe
Symptoms of the virus in children are very mild and can in fact be negligible. It has been found that only 3% of individuals under the age of 20 have been infected. Moreover, mortality rate is 0.2% for people under the age of 40.
7. A disinfectant can wipe the virus
You can effectively wipe clean infected surfaces and objects within a minute with a disinfectant or cleaning spray containing the following ingredients:
- Ethanol (62-71% ethyl alcohol)
- Hydrogen peroxide (0.5% hydrogen peroxide)
- Sodium hypochlorite (0.1% bleach)
8. Vaccine prototypes are on the way
Currently, more than 8 scientific projects are being undertaken to find a vaccine against the novel coronavirus. According to a report, the University of Queensland, Australia has already announced it’s efforts to develop a prototype through “molecular clamp”.
How to stay safe during coronavirus outbreak
As of now, experts believe that COVID-19 has a high transmission rate and a low mortality rate. So it is crucial that we remain calm, cautious and take necessary protective steps to protect ourselves and our families from the new virus without panicking or losing our minds.
Here are a few guidelines from WHO that you can follow to keep yourself and your family members safe during the coronavirus outbreak:
- Wash your hands properly with soap for around 10-20 seconds as often as possible. You can also use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Make sure you wash your hands after coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose, going to the washroom and before dinner.
- Maintain and practice social distancing. Stay at least 3 to 6 feet away from any person who appears sick and is sneezing or coughing. A study by Imperial College London found that social distancing has the “largest impact” in preventing the spread of the virus.
- Avoid touching your face, including your eyes, mouth and nose as the virus can easily transfer to your face from your hands, once contaminated, and enter your body.
- Practice and maintain proper respiratory hygiene. Make sure to cover your mouth and nose with a handkerchief or a tissue or your hands whenever you cough or sneeze as the virus spreads through droplets.
- Seek medical attention immediately if you feel sick or have fever or coughing and breathing problems.
- Keep yourself informed about the latest developments on the coronavirus outbreak and follow the advice offered by local and national public health authorities.
- Avoid shaking hands or direct physical contact with others, especially strangers. You may use elbow bump or fist bump instead.
- Press buttons or switches and open doors with your knuckles or use paper towels and disposable gloves.
- Eat nutritious food, exercise and get enough sleep to keep your immune system healthy and strong.
- Practice self-quarantine, work from home, if possible, and avoid public places until for the next 2 weeks.
- Avoid travelling to foreign countries and cancel travel plans that are not essential.
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Stay safe and don’t panic
Follow the steps laid down by the WHO and your national and local authorities to keep yourself safe. You also need to keep yourself updated on the latest happenings regarding the coronavirus outbreak. Educate yourself about COVID-19 as it will help you understand the virus better and understand exactly what you need to do, instead of panicking meaninglessly.
Information is power. Panic comes out of fear of the uncertain. When you have the necessary information to keep yourself and your family members safe, you will be better able to get through this without purchasing hundreds of toilet paper rolls unnecessarily. It is also important that you remain compassionate and do not discriminate against anyone who is sick.
If you think you are feeling extremely stressed or anxious about the coronavirus outbreak, then it is best to consult a mental health specialist.
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Here’s an interesting video that you may find helpful: