The uncertainty and anxiety that surround the COVID-19 pandemic have placed strains on the supply chain, as people across the globe stock up on excess food, masks and household products.
“It’s natural for people to buy critical supplies out of concern, but removing the supply from the market has created a situation where supplies aren’t ideally positioned to help the victims and responders,” says José Holguín-Veras, an endowed professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the director of the Center for Infrastructure, Transportation, and the Environment. “Somehow, we need to manage that.”
Holguín-Veras and a global team of researchers from 15 universities around the world are conducting an international survey about so-called “panic” buying. They want to understand what factors are driving these behaviors, and how the excess buying may be mitigated.
One thing researchers do know, Holguín-Veras said, is that confidence plays a large role in people’s purchasing behaviors. Researchers want to understand how that may be bolstered from country to country, and who may be the best to deliver critical information to a nation’s people. Certain populations may respond differently to government leaders, religious organizations, or nonprofit groups.
“In the case of precautionary buying, there is mistrust,” Holguín-Veras said. “Mistrust in the ability of the government to respond adequately, mistrust in the ability of the private sector to provide the supplies needed, or a combination of the two. One of the questions we’re trying to answer is: Who should be the emissary of the message?”
Holguín-Veras and some of his collaborators have already gathered data that highlights how important this research will be as this pandemic continues. A similar survey they recently conducted in China found that 31.4% of the total population purchased more face masks than they needed, but according to Holguín-Veras, 56.5% of those surveyed weren’t willing to share those masks because of fear over what may happen in the future.
Developing policies that could mitigate those fears could vastly improve how the supply chain is able to handle this pandemic, reducing anxiety and even improving quality of life across the globe. That’s why Holguín-Veras is sharing this survey broadly, in the hopes that respondents will also share it with others. The more information researchers can gather, the better the guidance they can provide international policymakers.
“It seems to be that the COVID crisis is going to be with us for a while,” Holguín-Veras said, “and the better we prepare now, the better we will help other countries and ourselves with the kinds of policies that should be in place. If everybody on the planet starts buying two or five times in excess of what they need, there is no supply chain that could cope with that. It’s a completely unnecessary activity that deprives people who need, from these critical supplies.