COVID-19 and panic buying

Only a scientific inquiry into the perceptions of the people regarding the pandemic can identify the factors related to irresponsible social behaviour.

The first case of coronavirus infection in Pakistan was detected among the pilgrims returning from Iran during February. Since then the pandemic has spread all over the country. Sadly, the number of infected people and deaths caused by the disease is increasing.

The government of Sindh responded promptly after the confirmation of the first few cases and announced several interventions. These included closure of all educational institutes until May 31, a partial ban on public gatherings, isolation and quarantine, avoidance of physical contact, and work schedule alterations. The governments in other provinces have followed suit and made similar pleas to the people.

However, the response from the public has indicated a lack of understanding of the emergency. For example, a majority of the affluent and middle class people rushed to the supermarkets and grocery stores to buy grocery items in bulk. Also, many families went on a spree to celebrate early summer vacations on beaches and in parks and playlands.

Others were busy socialising with relatives and friends. What has caused this irresponsible behaviour on the part of the people? What are the implications of this insensible response?

COVID-19 has induced fears and anxiety among the people around the world. In the West, people have resorted to irrational buying of grocery, particularly toilet papers. In Pakistan, people visiting supermarkets and emptying shelves of everyday items has become a usual sight in the big cities.

Panic buying reflects a lack of empathy among the rich for the not-so-rich. The strong impulse for buying seems to have been influenced by a herd mentality. Sociology of pandemic suggests that in all societies the tendency to follow herd behaviour becomes stronger during extreme events.

Steven Taylor who wrote a book, The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease, viewed herd mentality as an outcome of public fear and the inability to quell panic. At present, the scale and effects of coronavirus are not predictable, nor are they likely to be measured shortly. People are unable to normalise the fears associated with corona and consequently indulged in heedless buying.

The strong impulse for buying seems to have been influenced by a herd mentality. Sociology of pandemic suggests that in all societies the tendency to follow herd behaviour becomes stronger during extreme events.

Economic experts are busy figuring out the underlying economic factors for panic buying. Angela Jackson, an equity economist, has found the breakdown of implicit social cooperation, as propounded by John Nash. In her view, herd behavior is an optimal strategy of buying in crises. In our context, the appropriate explanation could be if everyone else is panic buying and you decide not to buy; you will be worse off.

Amongst the known fears of the COVID-19, one is the possibility of running out of edible items. In the present scenario, our dilapidated health system and carefree attitude of the society have fuelled the fears of an increasing number of fatalities and lockdowns for an indefinite period. Therefore, many might think that it is in their best interest to continue buying.

If people are engaged in impulsive buying due to uncertainty and fears attached to corona, should they continue buying? The answer is: no, panic buying could be anything but rational, as there is enough supply of groceries available in the market and the government is taking every measure to ensure that the supply chains do not get disturbed during the pandemic. There is no need to queue up in the market and empty the shelves.

The herd behaviour has severe implications everywhere in the world. However, the effects vary across countries due to specific socio-demographic characteristics of the population. In the West, panic buying is most likely to hit the elderly and the sick. In Pakistan, it is more probable to unleash adverse impacts on daily wage-earners, the under-employed, the poor, the destitute and contractual workers.

A recently issued bulletin by the policy think-tank, Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), has highlighted the large share (56 percent) of vulnerable employment in the total employment. It sys 71 per cent of the women and 52 per cent of the men are in vulnerable employment. It can be safely presumed therefore that panic buying will affect more than 50 percent of our employed labour force.

A report of the World Bank, [email protected] poverty to equity, indicates that countrywide, the top 10 percent of the population consumes on average three times more than the bottom 10 percent and their incomes are five times as large. So, if only 1 percent of the uppermost income group gets into panic buying, it would increase the consumption inequality by a significant proportion.

The Economic Survey 2017-18 mentions that 29.5 percent of the population is living below the poverty threshold. This means that around 55 million people in Pakistan are poor. If the scores of multi-dimensional deprivations is taken into account, as given by the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey 2014-15, 39 percent or 70 million of the people are living in poverty.

The irrational public response to pandemics may cause significant harm to the poor who are already battling with multiple deprivations. According to the PIDE bulletin-1, the coronavirus is likely to add 20 million people to the current number of poor (55 million) if the impacts tend to be the low scenario and to 70 million people if the effects loom large.

The lack of coordination between the public and private actors may exacerbate the adversities stemming from COVID-19.

Unlike past catastrophes, when people took part proactively in collective efforts to mitigate the crises, currently most people are not responding rationally. This may be on account of their belief in some of the myths associated with COVID-19. Constant exposure to hardships of life may be another factor. It may have made them socially immune to new threats. Some are possibly waiting for divine help and not acting to to take sensible precautions.

Only a scientific inquiry into the perceptions of the people regarding the pandemic can appropriately identify the factors related to irresponsible social behavior in Pakistan.


The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Karachi. She can be reached at [email protected]

COVID-19 and panic buying