Coronavirus or COVID-19 has the whole world in its grip, forcing an unprecedented number of people to stay indoors. For the first time in decades a global pandemic has humbled the humanity. Starting from China’s Wuhan late last year, the deadly virus has now spread to hundreds of countries. To contain the damage from fast-spreading coronavirus, governments across the globe have imposed lockdown measures and implementing strict social distancing measures.
The lockdown and social distancing measures, however, have brought out the worst fears of the people, giving rise to stress and anxiety. One way it is manifesting is in scenes of ‘panic buying’ and ‘hoarding’ of essential items, visible across the world with buyers hustling to grab the last piece of hand sanitizer, toilet paper or any other essential item.
Psychologists weigh-in on coronavirus-induced human behavior. Coronavirus is an invisible enemy and people fear things that they can’t see and can’t control, experts say, while adding that panic buying and hoarding essentials help people to believe they are in control.
“Many of us have a perceived inability to tolerate stress,” says Smitha Reddy, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Garden City University, Bangalore. “When we see our homes filled with all the stuff we need, we feel secured. It’s not a surprise that even though the economy is crashing, our buying capacity has only increased.”
India imposed social distancing measures from mid-March and a 21-day lockdown a week after restricting all the movement of people except for emergency and most essential services. While authorities assured the people that there is no scarcity of essential items, it didn’t make any difference with consumers stockpiling items.
On consumer behavior, Smitha said it goes to show that our faith in the system has gone down.
“We watch the news day in and day out which flashes lack of PPE and testing kits create a sense of insecurity, there is shortage of few items now, what if my government fails to provide what it promised in the future?”
The government announced various measures to mitigate the economic fallout from the lockdown, particularly ensuring food security for the poor. The Reserve Bank of India also pitched in with a 3-month moratorium on fixed-term loans and EMIs.
The measures, however, were absorbed differently by many people, says the expert.
“This piece of information made some people scratch their heads because they assumed that lockdown will not be lifted for 3 months,” said Smitha.
Under stress, we stop thinking rationally. Most of us tend to live in future, says another expert.
“We want to anticipate consequences of everything we come across, more than the present, we tend to live in our future,” says Pranoti Tilak, founder of Manovedh Counselling Centre, Pune.
“If I see a long queue outside a store and I run to buy things fearing that I won’t have enough resources for myself later, I am putting myself and my family at risk right now,” she adds.
The fear comes out very differently on a gender basis with women responding more anxiously compared to the men in different life situations.
It is very normal for a woman to manage her home and feed her family in limited resources, said Smitha while stressing that Indian women have a mastery in doing so. Men are the ones who tend to hoard and panic buy the most as they are traditionally seen as the main breadwinners of the family, she adds.
Age too is a factor in how different people respond to a particular situation. The older lot seem to be more bothered about the coronavirus scare, while the younger lot have the ability to manage and mould their routines, Simtha further adds.
That the older populace is at a higher risk has been highlighted by the Union health ministry data with those above 60 years of age accounting for 60 percent of COVID-19 deaths in India.
Prepping ourselves for an unknown danger has been an old business for human beings. A visit to a supermarket store and empty shelves can make anyone worried. However, it is a trap and breeds a vicious cycle that will trigger similar response of panic buying and hoarding from everyone.
It is worth pondering that the panic is as infectious as coronavirus.