In the last week, there have been photos and videos of empty toilet paper shelves in shops and supermarkets around the world. As the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak has spread even more, it seems as though it’s getting harder to find toilet paper. Stores and supermarkets have had to resort to strict measures on how much toilet paper someone can buy at once.
In the U.S. and Canada, many retailers have had to impose limits on customers for how many rolls of toilet paper they can buy at once. In Australia, some chains have hired security guards to control the situation, CNN reported. One Australian newspaper even printed out extra blank pages as emergency toilet paper.
Toilet paper cannot protect individuals against the coronavirus, and it’s not the first thing most people would think to buy in preparation for sheltering in one place for a long time, unlike canned goods or other food items. So why is everyone hoarding toilet paper?
People Are Conflicted About the Severity of the Situation So Are Tempted to Respond in Extremes: Psychologist
One possible reason has been given by Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist who has studied the historical reactions of people to pandemics. He told CNN that because the virus is new, there’s a lot that’s still unknown about it. People are hearing conflicting messages about the situation, how serious it is and how to prepare for it, so they may be tempted to react in extremes.
He added that “When people are told something dangerous is coming, but all you need to do is wash your hands, the action doesn’t seem proportionate to the threat. Special danger needs special precautions.”
People may also be tempted to overprepare when they hear about the measures some countries have adopted. Many countries have large-scale quarantines in place, and international health agencies and the CDC have told certain parts of the population to practice social distancing.
Professor Frank Farley told CNN that the coronavirus “is engendering a sort of survivalist psychology, where we must live as much as possible at home and thus must ‘stock up’ on essentials, and that certainly includes toilet paper.”
Social Media Has Amplified the Issue & Caused Even More People to “Panic Buy”
Because social media is flooded with images of empty shelves, toilet paper shortages are trending and people are posting photos of themselves stocking up, it makes everyone believe they should stock up too. Psychologist Taylor also said that “People, being social creatures, we look to each other for cues for what is safe and what is dangerous, and when you see someone in the store, panic buying, that can cause a fear contagion effect.”
Photos of empty shelves make people who would not normally panic buy think that they also need to stock up while the item is still available. Something that was only a perceived shortage to begin with then becomes a real shortage.
One video that went viral showed Australians fighting over toilet paper rolls in a Woolworths: