Don’t mock people for buying extra toilet paper – they’re doing the best they can with inconsistent and sometimes wrong advice

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News of COVID-19 cases across the U.S. has spiked. Fears around the pandemic have increased. And the family down the street is hauling a few extra bulk-sized packs of bathroom necessities from their SUV.

You roll your eyes and head to your social-media platform of choice to commence the mockery. Sure, it might make for a witty meme on Facebook or funny Tik Tok video (depending on your age demographic), but it also signals to our failure to pay attention to what really matters.

That our focus is on the wrong thing is nothing new. Over half a century of disaster research has repeatedly pointed to this. Officials, fearful of widespread panic, sometimes limit information-sharing with the public; yet instead of panic, we know that people are often guided by normalcy bias – the belief that things will function as they usually do and the understanding of circumstances through that lens, even when evidence indicates otherwise.

While concerned about mass panic, officials might ignore that it takes a great deal of encouragement for people to shift their thinking. Another example is the false belief that disasters do not differentiate between old or young, rich or poor. People do not experience disasters in the same ways, and strategies that ignore those differences often disadvantage the most vulnerable and marginalized.

In the American response to COVID-19, we’ve seen much of the same misdirection. Considerable attention is on what individual households and organizations are doing wrong: Buying the wrong things, following the wrong advice, spreading the wrong information. What we should rather focus on is the tremendous failure of our systems to address an unfolding crisis.

Toilet-paper debate

Let’s return to toilet paper. A lot of guidance has primed households to the possibility that they may be quarantined for at least 14 days. Conditions in China and Italy suggest that entire regions may be affected and the time frame could be longer. In a potentially sick or quarantined household, having toilet paper is a reasonable consideration. So too, however, is planning for others to join the household, such as elderly parents, and having sufficient food, medication and pet supplies, among other things, depending on the composition of the household.

How much is enough? Hard to say, so the average person will stock up – a reasonable decision with the information available.

But rather than focus too much attention on that choice, what we should instead be concerned about is how supply chains and related just-in-time or vendor-management inventory models are highly efficient during routine times, but prove less agile with the sudden and uncertain conditions of an emerging crisis. The fact that shelves at your local grocery store may be barren is related to how we operate in a national, often global, supply-chain system and the apparent inability of that system to weather COVID-19 or other threats.

Our health systems are under significant pressure. We initially heard from President Trump that anyone could get tested for COVID-19, yet we know that at the time the statement was made, not enough tests were available for everyone to actually follow that directive. Even now, testing capacity in the U.S. falls behind countries like South Korea or Australia.

We have heard that many of those who contract COVID-19 may have mild symptoms or may be entirely asymptomatic, yet still could transmit to others. But the public has also been told not to overwhelm the health-care system unless one presents with the most severe symptoms.

When to stay at home

That leaves considerable ambiguity regarding when to stay at home from work and when to seek medical attention. Some articles advise people to stay at home if they have a cough. Any cough or only coughing fits? What about a scratchy throat? Can I go to work, but not a crowded theater, with a cough?

Rather than shaking our heads at the concerned patient who seeks a doctor’s appointment for what turns out to be a really bad cold, we should focus on the cuts to public health, the strain on our health-care system and on our health professionals, and on getting both better and consistent guidance disseminated.

Indeed, the information the general public is exposed to has been wildly inconsistent, and the contradictions are worrisome.

Hand sanitizer should be regularly used in addition to frequent hand-washing. Try getting your hands on sanitizer from the store. Reputable news outlets have both dismissed the value of making your own hand sanitizer and provided recipes on how to do so.

Some events have been canceled while others go on in the same community. If school is canceled, can we go to the park? What about out for lunch? Many universities have canceled classes, but the crowds at nearby restaurants and off-but-near-campus parties have not disappeared.

Should I self-quarantine after returning from a country from which travel is still allowed? My co-worker returning from France must do so – why not me? What if I come back from a different state in the U.S.? What if I commute daily from a nearby state?

Unclear messaging

What we know is that when messaging is not specific, clear, consistent and does not indicate a level of certainty, people will make the best decision they can with the information available. That might indeed result in a bad choice, but it is not always unreasonable given the information they have.

Lack of clarity and specificity likely led some Americans in Europe to unnecessarily quickly buy high-priced tickets home when they woke up March 12 to the travel-ban announcement. Their benchmark may have been the 2017 travel ban, and the information was not clear enough at the time regarding the fact they could still repatriate after the 2020 ban went into effect.

People want evidence-based guidance on what exactly they should do, who and who does not need to take protective action and why, and the timing of what needs to be done.

If they lose trust, they won’t come back to that source. If people doubt the accuracy of some information, they will look elsewhere, even if that ends up steering them wrong.

Sorting through inconsistencies

The information coming from various government, non-government and media sources is now putting people in the difficult and unenviable position of sorting through inconsistent, incomplete and unclear guidance. The actions taken by those around them, and for them, are often contradictory and may appear arbitrary unless adequately explained.

This must stop. It is essential that relevant organizations and those reporting on events learn the facts, get them right and report out in a full, complete and consistent manner.

But that said, even if people do receive the correct information, they will still be left to manage the systems that are in place, which may be faltering or failing around them.

In the short term, immediate attention and investment is required to bolster the supply chain and health systems. Yet, a longer-term strategy to build greater resilience in our systems is needed.

We should not be surprised that precarious systems never thrive under stress, and that strategies useful during routine periods may prove inadequate amid crises. Better information dissemination, as well as short- and long-term attention to the systems that support our communities: That’s what we should focus on fixing, rather than mocking our neighbors who are doing the best they can with the information they have.

Tricia Wachtendorf directs the Disaster Research Center and is a professor of sociology at the University of Delaware. She is co-author, with James Kendra, of “American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11.”