New research shows that governments and corporations shifted more responsibility for COVID-19 risk mitigation onto the shoulders of consumers as the pandemic continued over time.
The research findings are published in the article “Passing the Buck vs. Sharing Responsibility: The Roles of Government, Firms and Consumers in Marketplace Risks During COVID-19” forthcoming in the next issue of The Journal of the Association for Consumer Research (The University of Chicago Press).
The paper is co-authored by three Canadian researchers: Charles H. Cho, the Erivan K. Haub Chair in Business & Sustainability at York University’s Schulich School of Business; Aya Aboelenien, assistant professor of marketing at HEC Montréal; and Zeynep Arsel, associate professor of marketing at the John Molson School of Business, Concordia University.
The researchers examined how policymakers, firms and consumers managed risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, researchers analyzed government and corporate communications to Canadian consumers during the first five months of the pandemic. They found that once the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus as a pandemic, firms and policymakers began actively managing risk by putting concrete measures in place. The messages from governments and companies then quickly shifted from ownership of responsibility to requesting consumers act responsibly by complying with new directives such as keeping physical distance and limiting time spent at stores.
According to the research paper, “as the pandemic escalated, the expectations and roles shifted: consumers were pushed to the centre stage to protect themselves and other marketplace actors.”
The co-authors say several key takeaways for governments, corporations and consumers emerged from their research. First, when facing highly volatile and unknown risks such as a pandemic, corporations should be pro-active rather than reactive. The authors give the example of Loblaws as one company that kept communication lines open and took immediate action. Second, governments and policymakers must be aware of the evolving nature of expert knowledge regarding new and unknown diseases and should err on the side of being overly cautious. And lastly, even though the government might have made mistakes, citizens must bear some of the burden of trying to contain the spread of the virus.
The one clear lesson that we learned from our collective responses to the pandemic, say the authors, is that “it takes everyone to protect everyone.”