Perhaps there is no worse way of welcoming the new decade of 2020 than the fear and loss caused by the rapid spread of COVID-19. Despite its relatively lower lethality rates (3.4% as of March 3, 2020) compared to previous similar pandemics, such as MERS (34%) and SARS (9.6%), as quickly and widely as the coronavirus has spread across the world, so too has the fear, anxiety, and worries about the virus. Lockdown procedure first took effect in Wuhan, the site where the infection was first identified, followed by Italy, and now countries around the world are enforcing varied levels of lockdown restrictions. After the lockdown in Italy and other places, photos and videos quickly circulated through social media, describing the miserable conditions of cities in lockdown. Some were left traumatised, while some others prepared in case a similar lockdown procedure was enforced by authorities in their country.
Australia is no exception, experiencing the virus and the accompanying social media terror. It took only 64 days since the first case of COVID-19 was identified in Australia to record almost 4000 patients on 29th March 2020. Given the rapid escalation of the virus, people immediately began stockpiling items considered essential for survival including: canned foods, cooking oils, diapers, tissues and toilet paper.
Tragedy of the Commons
There is a classical notion called Tragedy of the Commons that perfectly describes the social dilemma experienced in our situation. William Lloyd was the first person to define this issue in 1833 to refer to a situation when shared resources that will be available should individuals use as according to their needs, become less available because people behave contrary to the common good of all users. Such a situation creates a vicious cycle: fear of scarcity encourages people to buy in a large quantity, and by monopolising or stockpiling certain resources, “panic buying” creates a scarcity of various goods that had previously existed only in the imagination of those panic buying. Even when individuals know that under optimal conditions the system can work to deliver the products, once a norm of stockpiling is established, it becomes a rational choice not to let oneself be the one left without critical resources.
The collective buying not only affects the quantity of goods, but can also trigger aggressive behaviour as the resources become scarce.
Why does scarcity stir up aggressiveness?
Scarcity logically occurs when demand outweighs supply, which results in shortages, ignites competition for these resources, and increases their perceived value. Scarcity of the things that people consider essential is a perfect atmosphere for an instrumental aggressive behavior (behaviors intended to harm or injure another person as a means to obtain the resources) to occur.
In performing aggressive action, individuals instinctively evaluate the cost and benefits of their action. In this case, hostile behavior is only performed if and when the fear caused by the absence of the resources outweighs the risk associated with fighting. One factor that is critical is whether there are social norms (rules or standards for behaviour) that regulate the aggression. Humans are more complex than basic survival instincts, and values and identities also contribute in determining individuals’ actions. In this sense, people whose values condemn violence and favor humanity, or whose groups have norms of sharing and cooperation, may never consider aggression as an option regardless of their perceived need for the resource in question.
How to avoid the emergence of aggressive behaviour in a crisis?
In the case of stockpiling happening around us today, aggression is activated by competition for resources that are believed to be scarce. Competition often arises from worries of not being able to survive. These worries can influence us to think of others as a threat, thus providing another reason to behave aggressively. A second, more powerful reason is then created when social media and media magnify the images of aggressive behavior, creating a perceived norm of aggression that is at odds with the reality of every-day cooperation and politeness.
In response to this, I believe trust is the answer, and regaining people’s trust is our main homework. Trusting that suppliers are implementing their best strategies to ensure sustainability and fair distribution of stocks is important, but most importantly, trusting that people around us are just like us, humans with full dignity and values. Highlighting our shared identities is often the bedrock of that trust: focusing on our common faith, nationality, or humanity invokes our common agenda to come together to support each other in difficult times. As soon as we show trust and respect the system by following the advice from the authorised parties, and following what the majority of people do instead of the minority, we could show the world who we actually are: a united human species whose survival is determined by shared dignities, values, and respect more than by violence.
May 2020 be best remembered not by the chaos and fear caused by the COVID-19, but by the true values that defines us as humans, whose compassion, and not aggression, is what maintains our existence.
- By Eunike Mutiara
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.
LAST 25 POSTS