Following the fast spread of COVID-19 across Europe and North America in March 2020, many people began stockpiling commodities including toilet paper.
Some companies reported an increase of up to 700 percent in toilet paper sales, despite calls from the government to refrain from “panic buying”.
In the new study, researchers surveyed 1,029 adults from 35 countries who were recruited through social media. Between 23 and 29 March 2020, participants completed the Brief HEXACO Inventory – which ranks six broad personality domains – and shared information on their demographics, perceived threat level of COVID-19, quarantine behaviors, and toilet paper consumption in recent weeks.
The most robust predictor of toilet paper stockpiling was the perceived threat posed by the pandemic; people who felt more threatened tended to stockpile more toilet paper.
Around 20 percent of this effect was also based on the personality factor of emotionality – people who generally tend to worry a lot and feel anxious are most likely to feel threatened and stockpile toilet paper.
The personality domain of conscientiousness – which includes traits of organization, diligence, perfectionism and prudence – was also a predictor of stockpiling.
Other observations were that older people stockpiled more toilet paper than younger people and that Americans stockpiled more than Europeans.
The researchers pointed out that the variables studied explained only twelve percent of the variability in toilet paper stockpiling, which suggests that some psychological explanations and situational factors likely remain unaccounted for.
“Subjective threat of COVID-19 seems to be an important trigger for toilet paper stockpiling.
However, we are still far away from understanding this phenomenon comprehensively”, concludes Theo Toppe, co-author of the study.
The psychosocial responses of the general population towards recent emerging infectious disease outbreaks over the last 2 decades (such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic, H1N1 pandemic, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Ebola virus epidemics) have been documented across the globe including fears and anxiety, depression, loss, guilt, irritability, sense of isolation and stigmatisation (Leung et al., 2003; Maunder et al., 2003; Sim et al., 2010).
As of 8 April 2020, COVID-19 has affected more than 1.5 million people across 209 countries and territories, and more than 88,000 people have died from the disease and over 330,000 have recovered (Worldometer, accessed 8 April 2020).
One notable recent phenomenon that was observed in the current COVID-19 pandemic within multiple countries was that of panic buying that was not as often seen in earlier outbreaks (The Straits Times, accessed 8April2020).
In Singapore, panic buying and emptying of shelves (especially food and daily supplies such as toilet paper) in the supermarkets occurred briefly when the national alert level was raised to Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) Orange from Yellow on 7February2020.
The Dorscon is a colour coded framework that enables the Whole-Of-Government to respond immediately to any outbreak and which reflects the current disease situation overseas, disease transmissibility, likelihood of arrival locally and the impact it may have on Singapore’s community.
Hence the present Orange colour signifies that the disease is severe, easily transmissible from person to person, but has not been spread widely and still within reach of containment.
A separate bout of panic buying occurred when the World Health Organisation announced COVID-19 as a pandemic on 11March2020. Similar behaviours were observed around the globe including Japan, Australia, Italy, Spain, UK, USA over this period.4
There are several possible explanations for such widely observed behaviour. First, it could be a manifestation of underlying conflict between desire to maintain regular routines versus uncertainty of duration of the pandemic limiting access to daily necessities, which leads to anxiety and panic buying to assuage the conflict.
Second, it is a way of coping with a stressful unmet situation (with constant news of rising numbers of infected individuals and deaths worldwide) whereby one’s survival and that of the community are at stake during country lockdowns.
The coping response is then an act of preservation of self and the family when food and daily supplies are fully stocked even for a brief period of time. Third, it could be a reaction in response to one’s loss of control about the future and social pressures to conform to similar behaviours.
The exponential increase in social media and digital connectivity since earlier outbreaks of SARS/MERS, H1N1 pandemic fuels the propagation and contagion of such psychological responses (Depoux et al., 2020).
Ways to ameliorate such panic buying would entail an awareness of our own vulnerability and response to threats, harnessing the potential of internet, smart handphones and digital platforms to convey verifiable facts and counter fake news about COVID-19, reassure adequacy of daily supplies and promote positive psychological and social support during this pandemic.
Psychological support to the most vulnerable, to cope with panic and confinement may also be delivered through m-health platforms.
The food sector, including food distribution and retailing, has been put under strain as a result of people panic-buying and stockpiling food . This has led to increased concerns about shortages of food products such as long-life milk, pasta, rice and tinned vegetables. Panic-buying has resulted in an increase of £1bn worth of food in UK homes .
This high demand on food products has also affected online food delivery. Companies are struggling with excessive bookings, with deliveries arriving late or not at all .
Moreover, food banks have also been affected by panic-buying and food stockpiling as donations have reduced. Concerns about food running out also means that vulnerable populations who can not afford to stockpile, may not find food [99,100].
In response to these concerns, the UK government has made efforts to provide certain populations with food parcels and free meals to collect and take home. These populations include high-risk vulnerable individuals such as the elderly who have no support network, and school children of low-income families [, , ].
The UK government has also reduced restrictions on delivery hours for retailers in order to allow stores to restock with basic food products. Furthermore, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) has reassured the public that despite low inventory of certain food products in local stores, there are no such shortages of food. Similar statements have been made by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) [104,105].
In addition, despite reassurance by the government, stores have made drastic changes by restricting the amount of each product that an individual can buy, providing more than 30,000 new jobs to meet the high pressure of restocking shelves, and setting special shopping hours for the elderly, vulnerable populations and NHS stuff.
Further changes being implemented include a decrease in the range of products being made by manufacturers, with the aim of focusing on products that are in greater need .
Independent supermarkets have also been affected by the high demand on food products. Measures implemented by these local stores include free delivery of food products to customers to avoid panic-buying, putting restrictions on the number of customers allowed in at any given time to avoid overcrowding, and expanding on the number of suppliers whom they buy their products from to avoid food shortage .
Although supermarkets have seen a huge demand on food products, restaurants and cafes have been forced to close. As a result, many of these stores are at risk of permanent closure and many of their employees have lost their jobs.
The impact of COVID-19 on the food industry has forced Leon, a UK fast-food chain, to change its business model; 65 of its restaurants were said to turn into shops that sell refrigerated ready -meal-type plastic pouches .
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Max Planck Institute