Time to panic?

Unless you have been living alone in a cave for the past month or so, you will have undoubtedly have seen the news about COVID-19, more commonly know as Coronavirus. First noticed in and around the city of Wuhan in China, it has since spread to much of the world, with particularly severe outbreaks in China, South Korea, Iran and Italy.

While the rates of infection continue to rise at a steady rate, and sadly the number of deaths rise with it, over the last couple of days there has been a new topic of conversation for people beyond the virus itself: panic buying.

Take a look at social media and you will see more and more people discussing the phenomena which has hit some countries and particular products (toilet roll, why?!) more than others. Those posting seem to be either posting pictures of empty supermarket shelves, or else mocking the people who have been panic buying. The consensus seems to be panic buying is unnecessary and antisocial, and yet people are still doing it.

In this post, I want to have a little think about why this might be, and to try and provide at least some explanations for why people might be panic buying. It is easy to say panic buying is foolish, and it can be tempting to ridicule those who are doing so, but as with most things in life I don’t think the world is black and white, so I want to try and explore some of the glorious grey in between.

And just to be clear, this post is not discussing COVID-19 specifically. If you are wanting more information about the disease and what best to do to keep yourself safe (hint: wash your hands people!) then I would suggest checking out the World Health Organisation page or your local health service for more information. And if you do feel unwell, phone for advice first before rocking up to your local hospital and potentially infecting other people.

Who is a panic buyer?

While the act of panic buying is common to everyone who has been buying excessively over the last couple of days, there is not necessarily a single reason why people are engaging in the panic in the first place. Ultimately, I believe there are four broad reasons why people are panic buying, which I have discussed in a little more detail below.

The true panicker

Some people will be panic buying because they fear Coronavirus and the effects it could have. They are worried about the prospect of being isolated at home (potentially for two weeks or more) and they are making sure they have enough food and medicines (and toilet roll) in the house to survive such an event.

For many people this will seem an overreaction to what may turn out to be a less significant event than it currently seems. However, given the information (or lack thereof) currently available, I can certainly understand why people who are worried about getting sick or being isolated might be choosing to stock up on supplies.

The accidental panicker

We all run out from items in and around the home from time to time. If we take toilet roll as our bizarre example, there will be some people who were in need to a new packet, only to get to the shop the find the choices slim pickings. At this point, with the short supply of an essential item before them, it could be tempted to put an extra packet or two in the trolley just in case. These people might not be panic buying by the strictest definition of the term, but their actions are contributing none-the-less.

The panic-because-everyone-else-is panicker

Although this group might seem similar to the accidental panickers, there is a subtle difference here in that these people are intentionally going out to the shops to buy in bulk. More often than not this will be as a result of hearing about other people panic buying, and worrying essential items might run out. As much as we might like to think of ourselves as altruistic, in a crisis many people think of themselves and their family first, and that is not always an unreasonable position to have. The key to a well functioning society is to make sure we have systems and procedures which at time control these base instincts, and in a panic situation these systems do not always work.

The malicious panicker

There is a final group of people, who although small in number, can have a significant impact upon supplies of essentials. I will call this group malicious panickers, although you may also wish to call them arseholes. These are the people who buy up essential items, not for themselves entirely, but in the hope they can sell them later at an inflated price to those in need. Over the last week or so I have been following the price of face masks on eBay and Amazon (I know, I know how to party) and it has been sickening to watch the price rise from around £1 per mask, to £15 or more in some cases. I know some people will shout about ‘supply and demand’ and the free market, but I am under no illusion that much of these examples of price rises will in fact be price gouging.

Why are people panicking?

We have consider four broad groups of panic buyers and why they are buying excessive products they might not need, but there will be other factors which might apply to each group to a greater or lesser extent which I want to consider further here.

Limited information

COVID19 is caused by a virus which is part of the family of coronaviruses. While coronaviruses are well known to science, the virus causing COVID19 has only recently been recognised, and research into the virus, how it is spread and how best to treat it is currently being carried out at the same time as the medical community to trying to treat a significant outbreak.

Because of the novel nature of the virus, information is frustratingly limited. Coupled with the response from some national governments (cough UK/USA cough) which can be at best described as lacklustre, and there is a vacuum into which people are latching onto whatever information they can find, no matter the validity. Add to this people in white boiler suits and masks walking streets spraying disinfectant and the risks can seem much worse than they might actually be.

It is easy in this situation to find yourself imagining the worst, and if the worse it what you believe will happen, it is only sensible to prepare for it. Quite how people made the leap from pandemic to must buy extra toilet roll I am not quite clear on. Regardless, I can appreciate how in the absence of quality information you can trust it can be easy to batten down the hatches and hope to ride out the storm.

Assessing risk

We are rubbish as a species at assessing risk and chance. You only have to look at the numbers of people playing the lottery who are certain a big win is on the way to see how poor we can be at assessing a risk. It is my job to assess risk in the patients I see in clinic, and even so I find myself surprised when an event occurs for which I had assessed the chances as low.

Because of this, even when we are given the limited information available, we can then struggle to know what to do with it. The current fatality rate for people with confirmed infections is 3.4%. Is that a big number? Is that something to worry about? If you were to catch Coronavirus, is this something which should concern you?

If the risks seem difficult to access, taking precautions seems like a sensible approach. After all, if it turns out to not be as bad as your risk assessment determined, the worst that happens is you have your supply of toilet paper and baked beans for the next few months.

The media

My wife will probably not be happy I have included the media in this post. As a former journalist, she sees the media’s responsibilities in a very different way to me as a clinician, and to me there can be no doubt that seeing hour upon hour of quarantined cities and cruise ships, and repeatedly broadcasting the number of deaths is going to have an effect on the people consuming the news.

I know that footage of the overwhelming number of people who have caught Coronavirus and recovered is not eye catching for a news report, but it would be nice to see a little balance in the reporting so we do not focus entirely upon the numbers of people dying. While it might not prevent everyone panic buying, it might have enough of an impact on a few to make a difference.

Bare cupboards

The final issue I wanted to consider here is what we keep in our kitchen cupboards. Fifty years ago, it is likely people would have had a pantry which was full with enough food to last several weeks if needed. Today, many people will have enough food to last a few days at a stretch. I have had a look through my cupboards before writing this post, and I think my wife and I would be OK for a week before things began to get tight, and that would be stretching things. In fact, I think my dog would do better as we have a sizeable supply of kibble for him.

The trend of moving towards fresher produce is a good one for our health, but it does leave us vulnerable to times of shortage, and so it is easy to see why people have made their was down to the supermarket and stocked up on tins and preserved foods.

So what can we do now?

Briefly, I think it is probably a little too late to do much about panic buying in this crisis. Toilet roll is a scarce commodity, and the price of face masks is skyrocketing. More than likely, over the next couple of days things will settle a little, and while the virus might be around a little longer, it will almost certainly have burnt out by the summer. If you are prescribed regular medications by your doctor, it is almost certainly worth checking you have a good supply and getting your repeat prescription in if it is due, health services are likely to be busier than usual after all, otherwise I think the best advice again is to WASH YOUR HANDS!

What we can think about is how we deal with crisis in the future. They will come from time to time, and with climate change they may be more likely. One thing seems obvious, try to keep your cupboards stocked with at least essential supplies in tins and the like. I don’t want to promote food waste, but having at least a few items kept in case you cannot get to the shops for a couple of days seems like a sensible idea. At the same time it is good to look at the source of your food, and to buy locally where possible. In a future crisis, food shortages because of travel restrictions may be possible, so having your fruit and vegetables from the farmer down the road means you are more likely to keep stocked up. You could even think of growing a little vegetable patch in the garden if you want it to be truly local.

I want to finish this post on a positive note, and I do have one. During about 2 hours ago I took a walk to the local supermarket. After looking on social media I full expected to see empty shelves and people fighting over loo roll (yes there is a video out there if you are interested). What I found was, well, nothing. Yes true supermarket was busy, it was Saturday after all. But the shelves were relatively full, and people seemed to be stocking up on the usual products rather than panic buying the essentials. All in all, it seemed calm. So well done to the people of Morley for keeping a sense of perspective, and hopefully we will see more of the same in the coming days.

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