On March 11, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic. This was only twelve weeks after the disease (COVID-19) had first appeared in the city of Wuhan in China, and which since then has spread to 185 countries, infecting almost 3 million people and claiming more than 190,000 lives. This rising number of cases around the world has led to an increase in uncertainty, anxiety and fear, shaping people’s buying behaviours.
Professor Anat Gesser-Edelsburg, Associate Professor and Head of the Health Promotion Programme at the University of Haifa, and Founding Director of the Health and Risk Communication Research Center in Haifa, Israel: “The coronavirus outbreak has brought to a climax the uncertainty narrative, which is part of every unexpected epidemic, when we do not know its exact origin, how it is transmitted, how it develops, how long it will go on, and when a vaccination will be found for it. Uncertainty arouses fears and concerns in the public, sometimes even outrage.”
In a time of crisis, when we feel under threat, it is not uncommon to have a sudden need to stock up on supplies. Especially as people have had to prepare for self-isolation or quarantine, having enough food, household items and medicines is rational. ‘However, panic buying is not a responsible reaction to this pandemic,’ argues Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos at University College London. Although panic buying helps people feel in control of the situation and cope with uncertainty and anxiety, it can make shortages worse and prices rise, as well as take essential goods away from people who either need them more or cannot get to the supermarket every day.
Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, Lecturer in Consumer and Business Psychology at University College London (UCL), UK: “In the case of a public health pandemic, we don’t have any previous experience to base our actions on, and so we feel out of control of what is happening. Consumers feel that the only thing they are able to control is their purchases, and so, in order to prepare for the worst-case scenario, panic buying seems to be the answer.”
Why toilet paper?
Surprisingly, one particular item that has been flying off the shelves is toilet paper. This goes “well beyond anything reasonable and rational,” according to Dr Tsivrikos, especially as “coronavirus has no significant or widespread impact on toilet visits”. “Rather than toilet paper, a more logical purchase would be that of long-life food, such as tinned foods and UHT milk,” he says.
Dr Tsivrikos suggests the reason behind this irrational behaviour is that “toilet paper has a longer shelf-life than the majority of food items and comes in big packs that will last consumers weeks”. He also points out that it is related to personal hygiene, and could be bought as an alternative when the shelves of hand sanitisers and soaps are empty.
Herd mentality further adds to the panic buying. “Consumers might not be stocking up because of coronavirus directly, but because, when they visit their local supermarket and see it with nothing but empty shelves, they feel the need to get their hands on anything they can, creating a vicious cycle,” says Dr Tsivrikos. This behaviour could also be fuelled by the continued media coverage of the pandemic which creates more anxiety, he says.
During this pandemic, people have been exposed to negative images, such as empty supermarket shelves, and a plethora of mixed information, both on social media and in the news. Quality sources of information are essential for avoiding falsities and dealing with uncertainty, but despite authorities repeatedly urging everyone not to stockpile, for example, these messages have mostly been ignored — and this could be down to trust.
Professor Anat Gesser-Edelsburg says: “When the public is exposed to feelings of fear, confusion and helplessness, it is very important to examine the information transmitted and the ways it is being conveyed to the public. At times of uncertainty, the variables affecting different populations are different than they are in routine times and they must be examined and adjusted. […] There is a connection between levels of fear and acceptance of recommendations of behaviour change in conditions of uncertainty.”
While many previous epidemics, such as the swine flu (H1N1), Ebola, and MERS, have shown how important a two-way communication between authorities and the public is, the communication amid COVID-19 remains unilateral, says Professor Gesser-Edelsburg. Instead of addressing the public’s fears and concerns and communicating the risk, the authorities have framed their speculations as misinformation, she says, which leads to people rejecting the messages communicated. “An inclusive and transparent communication, and especially one tailored to subpopulations, can have an impact on public trust and get the public to cooperate,” she explains.
Additionally, in the past, authorities have falsely communicated uncertainty to the public as certainty. This resulted to large parts of the public distrusting them, says Professor Gesser-Edelsburg. With coronavirus, authorities have managed to express uncertainty, she points out, but “the question is whether the very declaration of uncertainty is enough to maintain public trust”.
Effective communication and public trust can help us get through this pandemic. Actions driven by anxiety, fear and uncertainty may make us feel in control, but they also risk sending society into chaos.
• A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Prof. Anat Gesser-Edelsburg about health and risk communication
• EU project : ASSET
• EU project : TELL ME
• A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Dr. Dimitrios Tsivrikos about consumer behaviour during COVID-19