National fear levels may be measured by monitoring social media and headlines, but it can be difficult to quantify to what degree fear is driving action beyond the Twitter-verse. However, observations of certain consumer purchase trends can be a leading indicator as to how widespread fear is influencing behavior when headlines stoke pandemic panic.
In preparation for well-publicized outbreaks, US shoppers seek out face masks (or respirators) as a way to protect themselves from airborne disease vectors. In M Science's data, distinct spikes in sales of dust, medical, and respirator masks appear as immediate responses to headline grabbing viral panic.
In the case of national concerns about an outbreak, visibility into the sale of protective masks can act as a near real-time gauge of the reactivity of consumers to fear of a highly-publicized disease.
The first confirmed case of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus in the United States was reported on January 21st, and our observed sales of masks quickly responded by jumping to 2.5x the average daily sales. As of January 30th (the date of writing is Jan. 31st), confirmed US cases have increased to 6 people, and sales of respirators accelerated quickly through that period.
One point this study underscores is the critical importance of how these news stories are reported for driving behavior and action at a national scale: although less publicized, the CDC has estimated that this flu season has hospitalized more than 180,000 people in the US and resulted in the deaths of over 10,000 people since October 2019. Despite the scale and severity of this flu, we don't observe the panic response of buying respirators.
That is not to understate the risk that the 2019 Novel Coronavirus may pose and the disruption and devastation that has already occurred in China. Gauging national fear and understanding how the masses convert headlines into action helps not only those who would like to know how stock markets will be affected but also organizations like the CDC looking to learn how to most effectively promote certain behaviors in defense of public health like the use of face masks, hand washing, and vaccinations.
M Science data provides unique, timely insight into consumer behavior at the micro-scale.
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