Update from Professor Rusi Jaspal

Published: Thursday, April 30, 2020

Professor Rusi Jaspal is Wandsworth Council’s advisor on social isolation. In his latest blog he outlines what fears lie behind panic buying and how to resist the temptation to buy more than you need. 

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The outbreak of COVID-19 has brought about many challenges throughout the country, including in our borough. One of them is a practice that is commonly referred to as ‘panic buying’. This involves excessive buying behaviours, that is, buying much more than one usually would and much more frequently. In psychology, we have studied this phenomenon for a long time and have generally found that some people are more prone to this behaviour than others. However, in situations of extreme uncertainty and fear, such as a disease outbreak, panic buying can become much more widespread. Indeed, there were reports of this happening up and down the country, including in our borough.

In my update today, I want to focus on three things:

  • why we engage in panic buying
  • why this is harmful to us all
  • how we can avoid doing this

In my last update, I talked about fear as a common and normal emotional reaction to a hazard (in this case, COVID-19). The COVID-19 pandemic causes not only fear but also significant disruption to our lives. Some people become very anxious about not being able to buy, consume, eat, and wear the things that they used to before the outbreak. Panic buying can be a way of restoring that sense of ‘continuity’ between past, present and future. On the other hand, we human beings tend to seek a sense of control in our lives – by panic buying, some of us believe that we are regaining a sense of control in situations of uncertainty.

So what’s wrong with panic buying? Firstly, it is not an effective way of restoring continuity or control in the face of COVID-19. It actually gives us a false sense of security that is quite short-lived. After all, the more we panic buy, the more pressure there is on supply chains, and the less likely we are to find what we need in supermarkets. Secondly, when we panic buy, we actually put many of the most vulnerable groups in our borough at significant disadvantage because they may not be able to buy the essential items that other (often less vulnerable people) have stockpiled. And, thirdly, when we panic buy, this increases anxiety levels throughout our entire community as people enter supermarkets only to find empty shelves. It can actually aggravate the problem as more people end up doing it.

What can we do instead? As I indicated in my last update, there are quite a few concrete, effective things that we can do in order to restore our sense of continuity and control in the face of COVID-19:

· Observe the social distancing policy which has been announced by the government. By avoiding physical contact with anyone outside of your home, you will personally contribute to fighting COVID-19. You will be regaining a sense of control in this situation.

· Limit the number of times that you leave the house.

· Wash your hands frequently.

· Remain socially connected by making the most of technology that we have access to. This will help you feel connected with other people and may help provide that sense of continuity that is so valuable to us.

· Try to limit the number of visits to the supermarket and, during each visit, buy only those items that you will actually need until your next visit. Please do think about other people when shopping and the effect that your buying behaviour will have on them. Think particularly about more vulnerable groups in our borough.

By following these simple steps, you will be doing your bit in the fight against COVID-19. You will be contributing to a community spirit. And you will be protecting some of the most vulnerable people in our borough.