Like many, I have been watching #toiletpapergate unfold with incredulous eyes. Much has been written about the stupidity of people in buying up toilet paper, when COVID19 doesn’t cause diarrheoa. We are fortunate in the Richardson household, when we ordered toilet paper from Who Gives a Crap, we ticked the box that meant we were getting a whole year’s supply in one go, rather than spread out over a year. D’oh. The girls had thought their prepper father had finally gone nuts when they couldn’t get in the house because the boxes were stacked up against it. There’s also been some very funny stuff too. But it no longer is funny if you are on a pension or benefit and you can’t buy the items you need to survive life on a daily basis.
Of concern to me though, is that we have been quick to blame the “punter”, as does happen a lot in the emergencies space. “People are idiots, stupid etc” we see the commentary. Supermarket’s are heroically keeping up with people’s stupid behaviour. What we are seeing shouldn’t be a surprise. Nobody has pointed out that the “system” plays a large part in what we are seeing.
I remember years ago when the Masterchef phenomenon took off, the morning after an episode, the Coles shelves were stripped of ingredients that featured in the previous nights show. The producers of the show came to an arrangement that let the stores know what was being featured, so that they could stock up on those items.
Anthony Richardson’s (no relation) paper on the role of complex systems in the South Coast Bushfires is instructive. Our systems are now complex, this allows us to deliver goods in a just in time manner, which maximises efficiency and either profit or lower prices, (depending upon who you believe). Complex systems are also counterintuitively fragile. There is no plan B.
Complex systems are not only multiple balls in the air, some are chainsaws, bananas, and flaming torches. The juggler keeps them in the air, with a tweak here, and a nudge there. What the juggler can’t see while concentrating on keeping the rhythm, is the toddler approaching from behind, or the bounding dog. The rhythm is interrupted, and objects begin to fall. There isn’t another juggler to take over. The system is degraded and someone misses out. Or worse still, it collapses.
Overlay this in a society where you are constantly told you can have everything, at your fingertips 24/7 366 days a year, and that everything is OK. The “System” tells you, don’t worry, we’ve got this. Go to any organisations website and they will tell you what a great job they are doing, building the underlying reassurance, “you don’t need to worry about that”. As the system starts to fray, people are not sure what to do. This was the premise of Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society. Risk has been transferred on you, you just don’t know it.
So, the supermarket shelves get stripped. We call this panic buying. Sure, there are reports of fights breaking out and tasers being used, but were people panicking? I don’t believe so. Any definition of panic will speak of people who are acting in an unthinking way. And doesn’t the media love the word “panic”. It’s a nice short, staccato, headline grabbing word, that gets the pulse racing and the breath shortening. Panic is a relatively rare phenomenon in disasters, despite the Hollywoodisation of reporting about them. Most people’s behaviour is focussed, and thinking.
People in supermarkets, (except, perhaps, when they get to the toilet paper aisle) are not acting in an unthinking way. The message has been given out. You need to prepare. People are doing that. Sure, there has been nuance in the message, (buy a few items each time). But, they are following instructions. They maybe then interpreting in the way that suits their circumstances. One third of shoppers only shop once a week (that’s about 4 million people), others do a major shop, then top up shops. If this is your only shop for the week, you might decide (particularly against a media backdrop that is giving rise to the urgency and rapidly changing nature of the COVID19 virus), rather than adding a few bags of pasta and rice, you might do a quick calculation and buy the recommended 14days worth of supplies (in our place that would be 12 bags of pasta). So, it wouldn’t take many shoppers to clear out the aisles.
Then add to that normal human behaviours, as this excellent opEd from Liam Smith and Celine Klemm from Behaviour Works outlines. There’s the fear/dread/lack of control axis. We don’t feel in control in the face of the virus outbreak. What do we do, we take control by preparing? There’s also that fact that as humans, we hate missing out on stuff. Look at normal human behaviour when there are sales or something is free.
We are also understanding more about people’s behaviours on preparedness. The notion of telling people to prepare and they will do it just doesn’t work. About 20% of people will do it, because that’s what they do. Others need a reason for it, and we are seeing that reason is the warning itself, as my friend and colleague Jacqui Pringle outlines in this AJEM article. The concept of ‘just in time” preparedness is emerging, which meets people where they are at in their lives. We’ve seen that with preparedness messages that we have released when warnings have been issued, there is a greater uptake of them than when the messages are everyday.
This situation makes it worse for people without the resources to buy up bulk, and buy on a daily basis exactly what they need, because that’s all the money they have, as VCOSS have pointed out. Hence, to me the system has a lot to answer for in this case. This is why we plan. This should be no surprise. But it seems to be much easier to focus on, ridicule, and blame those that are heeding preparedness messaging, and taking action.