Why are people emptying supermarket shelves? They grab not only toilet paper, milk, Panadol, paper towels, rice and spaghetti but also hand sanitisers, cans of all descriptions and more recently alcohol.
With the future suddenly thrust into the unknown, they do what feels reassuring; it seems like madness but in some ways panic buying is more rational than it appears at first. Uncertainty and anxiety created by conflicting messages leads to panic buying. Rightly or wrongly it is the need to feel in control of the situation which generates this behviour. Panic buying is often also fuelled by rumours in both the regular and social media. Panic buying is not hoarding in the true sense of what defines it.
Sometime ago, I saw for the first time what true hoarding is. When I was looking to buy a house, a beautiful Victorian house with a return veranda came on the market. To my surprise it had hundreds and thousands of newspapers bundles up in piles tied up with strings. The bundles were arranged in such a way that there were distinct passageways between them to walk around the living space of the house. Not even the real estate agent managed to convince the owner of about 70 years of age to get rid of his hoard of newspapers. He was a real hoarder.
Hoarding is a disorder, not an impulse or a sudden urge. Surrounded by the things they hoard; hoarders feel safer and happier. However, buying several packets of toilet paper in case the shops run out or the possibility of being quarantined and not being allowed to go out is not about hoarding in the true sense of what hoarding means. So how can we explain it?
In the preceding weeks we have had vague and conflicting messages creating uncertainty and anxiety. We have heard from various sources about social distancing, not attending large gatherings and not shaking hands. Newspapers and social media deluge us with possible misfortune that has taken place in countries where such advice has been ignored. Take Italy for example.
Yet on Sunday 15/3/20, our Prime Minister and the Chief Medical Officer Dr Murphy emphatically suggested that we could go to football games and shake hands to the incredulity of the presenter David Speers. So, while many countries have imposed mass shutdowns and quarantines on their citizens, we are told that there is nothing to worry about.
Conflicting messages of such importance lead to extreme behaviour. People decide to buy an abundance of goods including toilet paper and hand sanitisers because they see what happened in China’s Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and they see what is happening in Italy and Spain currently where there is mass quarantine and many deaths. What is lacking is assurance and consistency of messages by our Federal Government and health officials. Uncertainty and doubt lead to panic buying and the Prime Minister telling us not to hoard does not reassure anyone.
A clinical psychologist and author of “The Psychology of Pandemics”, Steven Taylor suggests that panic buying begets panic buying. Seeing empty supermarket shelves and people with overloaded trollies lead to anxiety and a feeling of doubt and apprehension of missing out and maybe about the future in general. The social media in particular feeds this anxiety and fear. “Perhaps I need to make sure I have enough” is a thought that must have gone through many people’s minds including mine. With the reoccurring messages of the possibility of being quarantined, preparing for such an event induces a sense of control and less anxiety about the future. Being in control helps to balance fear of the unknown.
Panic is not new. The Prime Minister, Mr. Morrison has said that we may face six months of uncertainty. Again, a vague message which creates more fear and anxiety. When the Bubonic Plague reached Sydney in 1900 it was met with panic and fear. Panic and fear based on both knowing and not knowing. Knowing how dangerous the plague was but not knowing precisely how it was spread created fear and anxiety. We do know, how the covid19 spreads (for example, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/transmission.html) but it is a new virus and it involves a learning curve.
However, what we struggle most with is speculations and conflicting messages such as the one happening right now about school closures. It appears that the Federal Government is trying to override state governments decisions about the best outcome. I do not know how often I have read and heard these questions “Why are shopping mall open where people congregate but weddings and funerals are restricted to minimal number of people? Why are cruisers allowed to dock here with little oversight? Why is there such chaos at Australian airports?
We do not need half-hearted and lame messages in such an unprecedented time. In unprecedented times such as the one we are in; we need more than speculation and conflicting messages. We need clear messages coming from a knowledgeable authority to assure us.
Dr Rivka T Witenberg is an academic and writer focusing on moral development and tolerance. Latest publication: The psychology of tolerance: Conception and development https://link.springer.com/