The Current

'Herd effect': Social media images of empty shelves fuelling panic buying over coronavirus, says prof

Canadians worried about coronavirus are stocking up, but public health experts say while it’s good to be prepared, there’s no need to panic — and we should avoid fuelling that panic on social media.

'You need to have a sensible plan — how much toilet paper do you really need for a week,' asks prof

Shelves at a pharmacy in Vancouver were sold out of hand sanitizer and other cleaning supplies on Sunday. (Leanne Hazon/CBC)

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Social media posts are contributing to panic buying and stockpiling over novel coronavirus fears, says a professor of psychology.

"Someone will post images on Instagram or on social media of overstuffed shopping carts and empty shelves in department stores," said Steven Taylor, a professor at UBC and author of The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak.

"And that's going to go viral and that's going to create the illusion of urgency and scarcity, and that's going to ramp up the panic buying."

He told The Current's Matt Galloway that by applying some media literacy people would realize these images are being circulated simply because they're dramatic.

"Nobody's posting images of calm shoppers and full department stores or supermarkets," he said.

"When you look at these images, realise that this is not a statement of the way things really are."

Last Wednesday, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu suggested Canadians should prepare for possible illness as they would for a natural emergency such as severe weather — by stocking up with about a week's worth of food, medicine and other basic supplies. 

Health officials in Canada have reported 29 cases of COVID-19: 20 in Ontario, eight in British Columbia and one in Quebec.

Stores have seen an increase in shoppers stocking up, leading to long lines and empty shelves.

Taylor said that urge to stock up stemmed from the "herd effect," driven by "fear contagion."

"Imagine this, you're on the Titanic and everyone is running for the lifeboats. Are you going to sit around and think about whether the ship is sinking?" he asked Galloway. 

"No, you're going to run as well, it's almost a reflex reaction."

Shoppers at Superstore buy paper towel and toilet paper in Vancouver on Monday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

He said that public health officials had to strike a balance between not causing undue alarm, but also ensuring people were motivated to protect themselves.

Individuals should also consider their own social obligations, he said.

"People should purchase responsibly and not hoard items," he said.

"You need to have a sensible plan — how much toilet paper do you really need for a week?"

Prepare as a community, says expert

Public health expert Alison Thompson said that panic buying can put the supply chain under pressure, meaning shortages of essentials when people need them. 

"There is no reason to go out and, you know, stock your bunker at this point in time," said Thompson, who teaches public health ethics at the University of Toronto.

"The [better] approach would be just add a couple of things at a time when you're going to the grocery store, rather than like wiping out the entire shelf of dried pasta and taking it home."

When shopping, she suggested picking up dried pasta, tomato sauce, canned soups and other nutritious, non-perishable foods. You should also pick up basic fever medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, and the versions suitable for children. (And don't forget some extra toilet paper.)

Thompson said that responding to an outbreak would be more effective if communities can work together — both in terms of helping near neighbours, and considering people you work with or others you interact with on a regular basis.

"Is there someone in your neighbourhood that is vulnerable? Are they elderly and they have trouble getting out to the stores?" she asked.

By buddying up, people can ask each other for help — even just picking up groceries — with a quick phone call, she said. 

"Having those sort of connections in the community in place is really helpful."

Written by Padraig Moran, with files from CBC News. Produced by Alison Masemann, Mehek Mazhar and Anne Penman.