The outbreak of COVID19 has riddled a man’s life with a range of uncertainties; the uncertainty of keeping one’s job (or, receive a pay-cut), the life-threatening uncertainty of contracting the disease, and the uncertainty over the fate of lockdown besides many more.
India is a land of contrasts with different religions. However, at the core of these religions alike, is a simple message to its followers: to love and be kind to others, to give others as one would like to be given back. This idea of reciprocity, enshrined as one’s righteous duty in their pursuit to become the noble man, has guided our human civilisation since its early days. Often, we have heard folklores and tales of mutual acts of kindness; and one might not have been wrong in thinking that such acts bring collective good to the entire humankind. However, as generations evolved, and society became more atomised, reciprocity no longer remained wholesome. We help others only when it’s convenient to us; a ‘seismic cultural shift’ that can be explained by individuals’ egoist behaviour. People have resorted to pure-selfishness and greed, in an attempt to do what is selectively best for them.
Unfortunately, in the last couple of months, we have witnessed multiple episodes of such self-centric behaviour. As nations battle the threat of the Novel Corona Virus (aka COVID19 or SARS-COV2), their country leaders have called on their captains to enforce legal restrictions on citizens with curfews and travel bans to break the chain of the disease (and ‘flatten out’ the spread of the virus). The Indian government, fearing a wave of fatalities, also followed suit by announcing a nationwide lockdown on 24 March. Such authoritarian measures, promoting social distancing, prohibit all against travel but for essential work, which if violated could subject one to harsh penalties (including fines and lathi charges to disperse gatherings). The government, however, in recognition of its citizens’ plight and in an attempt to minimise public hysteria, assured the mass to replenish and maintain stocks of essential items in these pressing times. Despite this, one has observed quite the contrary. Indians, like citizens abroad, have resorted to panic-buying and hoarding of non-perishable groceries, medicines, ventilators and protective masks.
This sudden demand shock has tattered the nation’s supply chain creating supply bottlenecks that has left shelves in shopping malls empty for days. However, such behaviour is not limited to atomistic consumers only. Many nations have also resorted to devious measures to stockpile their resources; for instance, the US government was recently condemned for hijacking mask shipments; while the Indian government announced its ban over exports of hydroxychloroquine, as claims surfaced that the drug was effective in treatment against the virus. Others like Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan implemented food export bans as they prepared to fight the pandemic. Such a wave of ‘food nationalism’ and resource amassment can very well have global ramifications by jeopardising world’s net importers and collapsing international trade channels. But what explains the psychology behind these selfish motives adopted by citizens and nations alike? Can such behaviour, motivated by private gains, be morally justified by one’s fear of the inevitable? Or is it their greed that fails their notion of reciprocity, for as Gandhi said, “the world has enough for everyone's needs, but not everyone's greed.”
One can choose to reconcile the recent turn of events with different behavioural theories. One such, for instance rooted in the economics of hoarding, is well explained by the psychological game theory: predictions of how individuals choose to behave when their payoffs are linked to the actions of others. One can think of an individual’s ‘choice to buy’ as embedded in a collective action dilemma. While the rational man would buy enough to only maximise the societal gains (e.g. if I buy all sanitisers, how would others maintain hygiene?), man is seldom all but rational. Guided by fear and egoist concerns, he often engages in socially non-optimal (or, panic) buying, for if he does not engage in it, others might (the tragedy of commons), leaving him with the worst (or, sucker’s) payoff. This anticipation, that everyone will act in their best self-interest, frequently incentivises consumers to act irrationally and hoard up goods.
Another justification for the behavioural anomaly can be attributed to the theory of ‘zero-risk bias’. Kudos to the work of Tversky and Kahneman, economists now understand humans’ innate desire for loss aversion. A common trait of man is to minimise uncertain events; and while he might not be able to successfully avert the multifaceted risks he faces; he attempts to negate as many he can in entirety. Considering this, it is easy to understand that the outbreak of COVID19 has riddled a man’s life with a range of uncertainties; the uncertainty of keeping one’s job (or, receive a pay-cut), the life-threatening uncertainty of contracting the disease, and the uncertainty over the fate of lockdown besides many more. When presented with a plethora of such uncertainties, an individual does his best by negating at least one of these risks, if not more. Thus, when one engages in panic buying (and hoarding), it takes away the uncertainty of being able to provide for his own self and family in the foreseeable future; more so, if the future entails greater risk.
Another line of reasoning can be traced back to one’s aversion of disgust. Recent scholarly work has shown that disgust is “an adaptive system that
Nonetheless the Indian government might not be far behind in arousing nationalistic sentiments as its defence against these socially non-optimal behaviour. Promoting kinship and acts of generosity can be helpful in mitigating such non cooperative actions and reinstating one’s notions of reciprocity. Recent public appeals by Prime Minister Modi for clanging utensils during Janta Curfew and burning candles while switching off lights on 5 April in solidarity with essential staff who are combating the deadly COVID19 are definitely remarkable strides in reviving the nation’s cooperative sentiments and trust in fellow countrymen. However, India is not unique in its efforts to arouse such feelings; the Britons have often united, as Prime Minister Johnson has urged, in publicly applauding the efforts of their NHS caregivers. And as people across the globe unite in solidarity, there is hope that reciprocity towards others would definitely boost our chances of resuscitating nations from the clutches of the pandemic and strengthen our chances of survival as a herd together, once again.
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Sanchayan Banerjee is a second-year doctoral candidate in EnvironmentalRead More +