As people rush to stockpile toilet paper and tinned food in the event of a UK-wide coronavirus outbreak, even the most levelheaded can start to feel unnerved. Dena Grayson, a doctor who helped develop drugs to manage the ebola outbreak, tweeted this month that "this is not a zombie apocalypse". But if you've taken even a cursory glance at recent news, you might be feeling a little differently.
A few weeks in and it's already a bit Lord of the Flies. Individuals are bulk-buying 99p hand sanitiser to sell on eBay for £15. Meanwhile, Tesco have limited the sale of essential items, like pasta and tinned vegetables, while Ocado emailed customers suggesting they book deliveries further in advance after noticing "particularly large orders". Yet the UK isn't even in lockdown, with only a few hundred reported cases compared to the thousands in Italy, China and South Korea.
So what happens when the virus continues to spread? Is a situation of mass panic inevitable, if we aren't already in one?
Lisa Blackman is a Professor in Media and Communications at Goldsmiths University and has been studying the subject of panic and contagion for 20 years. One of her early examinations of mass panic was during the AIDS crisis, which she found created a sense of community where people cared for each other. But this time, "community is becoming increasingly fragmented". She believes the current breakdown of society – i.e. people buying as much hand sanitiser as they can carry – is partly due to a fear of the unknown, in that we aren't yet hearing from many people who've actually had the virus.
Previous pandemics haven't created the same surge of anxiety. However, as Professor Ian Goodfellow – Deputy Head of the Division of Virology at the University of Cambridge – says, that's because we're more familiar with the likes of swine flu and influenza; we have a vaccine. But coronavirus has been an alien, fast-spreading virus – and one currently without a cure.
"Two months ago it was in China, this week it's in the UK – and when people see the word SARS associated with it, which has a 10 percent mortality, you can understand the panic," he says.
People feel afraid because it's been reminiscent of Hollywood apocalyptic pandemic films, Goodfellow explains. You can understand wanting to protect the people around you, but panic buying food and toilet roll is "completely unnecessary". Perhaps it's just a way to make us feel more in control while we're waiting for information.
Low-lying anxiety about a depleted NHS has also come vividly to the fore. "Our notion of welfare has been so dismantled," says Blackman, "and maybe some of our fears right now are because that has been eroded over such a long period of time." We've all felt that, whether at a conscious or subconscious level, while waiting three weeks for a GP appointment or struggling for referrals. If we don't yet know exactly how the virus will affect us and don’t trust that there will be healthcare, anxiety over how we might be treated begins to feel like a very rational concern.
Anxiety breeds anxiety, especially in the digital age. Blackman points out that Ocado's email is "a perfect example of how something asking people not to panic has created more panic". He told a colleague – also an expert in the field of mass anxiety – about the email, and their response was: "I haven't stockpiled… Should I?!" Even experts get affected. Goodfellow describes the scenario we're seeing as "an increased ability to share fear" – messaging friends, fanning the flames and putting yourself in a heightened state of anxiety about something that you actually don't need to be. Better to stick to reliable facts and not overwhelm yourself by watching rolling news coverage.
"There's been some good examples of journalism and some very bad, almost negligent examples," says Goodfellow. "Cases where headlines are ridiculous and fuelling the fear – calling it 'the killer virus'." However, he does admit it's a tricky balance: "If you don’t bang the drum hard enough, nobody listens, and if nobody listens we’re going to have a really bad situation." So journalists do need to raise the alarm, but – he says – some have overstepped the mark. "Measles will probably end up killing more people this year than coronavirus, but we won't hear about that."
So what should our action plan be? The most important way to slow the spread and prevent the biggest hit on the NHS when it's already under pressure from winter illnesses is to change tiny behaviours, says Goodfellow. "It wasn't vaccines that stopped ebola, it was getting locals to understand the disease and how it spreads."
The projected worst case scenario is that 50 percent of the population becomes infected, leading to 100,000 deaths, but that's assuming we do nothing and all of the planned interventions don't work. What happens from here is hugely determined by how individuals – we – behave. Right now, Goodfellow says, case numbers are low, so thorough hand washing will give you good protection. The only other way you'd get infected is by sitting within close proximity of someone who's infected and coughing.
What about slowing the spread of panic? Blackman says we need to practice more friendship and communality: "We will probably get quite localised clusters of the virus, so I would encourage people to check on neighbours and use social media to keep an eye on people locally." Some retired doctors are volunteering to go back to work again if needed, which feels positive – those acts of selflessness often breed more caring gestures.
The way to diffuse panic and prevent this from becoming a situation of hysteria is by having more information about the virus, which will come over time, but also by looking out for other people. What's really frightening is feeling we'll be in a situation of scarcity, that we won’t be cared for, or that we may be threatened by other people going after the same resources. But there is enough to go around if people carry on as normal, resist the urge to go on the defensive and don't act selfishly.
Self-isolation periods should only be necessary for two to three weeks, which really doesn’t demand that much food or toilet paper. The moment we reassure each other we're not the threat and we’re in it together, panic reduces. Could this maybe even do what Blackman witnessed 20 years ago, and bring people together? It's certainly a moment to think about the state of the NHS and the lack of trust in our protection, and also perhaps to address the disintegration of our communities. Just as panic is contagious, so is solidarity. Perhaps we're on the precipice now of seeing which one of those two will win out.
Has Blackman done any panic buying? "We bought a couple of extra things," she says, "but the irony is that if you actually get coronavirus you're probably not going to be eating anything." It sounds like a bit of anxiety is a good thing to make sure we change our behaviour, but you can stick to your regular online shop – there's no need to hoard loo roll.