As the coronavirus crisis continues to unfold worldwide and with no vaccine in sight, one thing prevails: uncertainty.
That has sent thousands of shoppers in Japan and abroad into a grocery-hoarding frenzy, including panic-buying of toilet paper and brawls over face masks.
But fears over the pandemic can be managed and psychologists and human behavior experts are calling for policymakers to be more transparent to help the public cope with distress over the outbreak and offer tips for navigating anxieties.
Why do people hoard toilet paper in a health emergency?
Japan was one of the first countries, after Hong Kong and Singapore, to see the coronavirus scare spark a number of false rumors on social media suggesting that “toilet paper is expected to run out,” spurring a consumer rush to stock up.
The Japan Household Paper Industry Association earlier in March assured the public that 98 percent of the country’s products were made domestically and thus there was no paper shortage in Japan.
Kazuhiro Goda, the association’s director, believes the situation should soon get back to normal “as long as consumers remain calm.” But at the moment, many stores and supermarkets are still rationing goods as eerily empty shelves greet consumers in need of toilet paper.
Goda said that excessive purchasing of goods over a short period of time resulted in an instant shortage of toilet paper at many stores.
“But makers do have plenty of stock, operate 24/7 and ship their products regularly. The thing is that distributors don’t catch up with higher demand and thus stores haven’t re-stocked their shelves yet, waiting for delivery,” he assured in a telephone interview Thursday.
Steven Taylor, a psychologist who has studied behaviors in crises, said, “I think what’s happening is toilet paper has become a symbol, a symbol of safety for some people.”
In an interview Wednesday, the author of “The Psychology of Pandemics” described the tendency as an attempt to protect oneself from the virus as everyday things like hand-washing or covering one’s mouth when coughing, as recommended by health experts, don’t seem like enough.
But Taylor points out that “panic-buying” may continue even after stores restock their toilet paper supplies.
“There will be panic buying of other things,” he said.
David Savage, associate professor of behavioral economics at The University of Newcastle, Australia, compares panic-buying to a rush at a bank “where individuals feel that the institution may be unable to release the individual’s money due to some speculation.”
“What we observe with panic buying is based on incomplete information, due to uncertainty and a lack of knowledge in local conditions,” he wrote in an email. “But just like the runs of the bank, once started they are virtually impossible to stop.”
What frightens us?
Savage believes that the general public is also dealing with ambiguity.
“People do not know what it is that they do not know!” he wrote. “They are uncertain if or when the virus will spread to the region, they do not know if they themselves will be infected, which also means they do not know if they need to go into isolation and need several weeks’ worth of supplies.”
Mafumi Usui, professor of social psychology at Niigata Seiryo University Faculty of Social Welfare and Psychology, said that fears in Japan have heightened to the point where some people exposed to daily doses of news on the coronavirus crisis “wish to get infected soon.”Amid alarming levels of spread, the World Health Organization on Thursday declared the coronavirus a global pandemic. By Friday, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases had exceeded 120,000 and more than 4,300 people had died after contracting the virus.
But Usui believes the word “pandemic” won’t spark more fear than the virus already has.
He said, however, that the anxieties may be associated with cultural norms and governments’ handling of the crisis.
In Japan, causing trouble to others frightens as much as the virus.
“Many (Japanese) people fear they’ll be the first in the area where they live, or their workplace, to contract it,” Usui said. “People don’t want to stand out as these cases make headlines. And if they were first, many people would feel ashamed (of causing trouble).”
The names of companies and establishments the patients had visited are disclosed in Japan.
“What I think is actually occurring is not panic, but we are succumbing to several other behavioural issues, specifically herd behaviour and loss aversion (regret),” Savage wrote.
“When we see others acting in a certain way we have historical makeup that wants us to conform with the group. … Or at the very least we stop and think about the behaviour and wonder if we should also be doing that.”
Meanwhile, Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, pointed out that the situation surrounding the coronavirus may have an impact on specific groups of the population.
“Those unknowns, they’re particularly difficult for people with the pre-existing history of anxiety problems, people who have a great deal of difficulty tolerating uncertainty,” he said Wednesday.
What can policymakers do to ease public concerns?
What experts agree on is that the world needs competent leaders capable of delivering appropriate messages to their communities.
Usui believes that: “In times of a crisis, the government and (health) officials need to effectively communicate risks but a good dialogue is based on trust … and the government should also make effort in gaining it.”
Usui stressed that the government should offer more advice on how to follow one’s daily routine safely to ease the citizens’ fears and help them make rational decisions.
“We’ve heard (officials) urge the public to self-control or refrain from doing many things, as well as warnings of potential risks but I’d like to hear more about what’s relatively safe,” he said.
Savage sees uncertainty and a lack of information as “the true enemy” in regard to public behavior, and stressed that unknowns perpetuate fear and create bias.
“The best solution may well be as simple as public education campaigns delivered in the simplest way possible and framed in a positive light rather than a negative,” he said.