Coronavirus: Why is everyone panic buying toilet paper? Practical tips on what we should be doing instead

Coronavirus: Why is everyone panic buying toilet paper? 

Practical tips on what we should be doing instead.

Posted on March 13th 2020 by Hollie Pita-Carr

Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson have been diagnosed with Coronavirus, having been working with Warner Bros in Australia on Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Presley film.

Tom Hanks appears to be very calm about the situation, posting a statement on his instagram, which explained how he and Rita had just felt ‘a bit tired, like we had colds and some body aches.’

The couple’s son Chet Hanks posted a video on Instagram, which further highlighted that there was no need to panic. After speaking with his parents, Chet said “they’re not worried about it” and “I don’t think it’s anything to be too worried about, I appreciate everyone’s concern and the well wishes but I think it’s all going to be alright.”

Tom Hanks’ son Chet Hanks posts a video on Instagram about his parent’s diagnosis of Coronavirus, stating: 

Despite this positive and rational approach from well known and loved celebrities, others are not being quite so calm.

Coronovirus (COVID-19) is causing chaos, with rising anxiety and fear, but why are people panic buying toilet paper of all things?

Shelves of toilet paper have been stripped bare and some stores are resorting to rationing what little stock they have left as people fight for loo roll! 

Australia has even had to increase security measures after two women were reportedly charged, fighting over toilet paper in a Sydney Supermarket.

As coronavirus continues to spread around the world, so does anxiety and panic. People are stocking up on supplies, worried about isolation measures being put in place and lockdown. 

However, of all the things to be panic buying, why such a fight over toilet paper? 

The psychology of why people are panic buying toilet paper

This panic response to strip the shelves bare of toilet roll provides a fascinating insight into human behavior.

The World Economic Forum interviewed a range of experts, asking their opinion on why people are panic buying toilet paper.

Niki Edwards from the School of Public Health and Social Work, Queensland University of Technology said: “Toilet paper symbolises control. We use it to “tidy up” and “clean up”. It deals with a bodily function that is somewhat taboo.

When people hear about the coronavirus, they are afraid of losing control. And toilet paper feels like a way to maintain control over hygiene and cleanliness.

People don’t seem interested in substitutes. Supermarket shelves are still full of other paper towels and tissues.

The media has a lot to answer for in regards to messages around this virus and messages to the public. While honesty about threats is critical, building hysteria and promoting inappropriate behaviors is far from ideal.”

Brian Cook, Community Engagement for Disaster Risk Reduction project, University of Melbourne, said: “My suspicion is that it is to do with how people react to stress: they want an element of comfort and security. For many Westerners there is a “yuck factor” associated with non-toilet paper cleaning...

Stocking up on toilet paper is also a relatively cheap action, and people like to think that they are “doing something” when they feel at risk.”

Panic buying creates more panic buying

Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia, told CNN

"People, being social creatures, we look to each other for cues for what is safe and what is dangerous," he said. "And when you see someone in the store, panic buying, that can cause a fear contagion effect.

All those photos of empty shelves may lead people to believe that they must rush out and grab toilet paper while they still can. And what started as perceived scarcity becomes actual scarcity.

It's all due to this wave of anticipatory anxiety. People become anxious ahead of the actual infection. They haven't thought about the bigger picture, like what are the consequences of stockpiling toilet paper. But people only act that way out of fear. 

On the one hand, [the response is] understandable, but on the other hand it's excessive….We can prepare without panicking" Taylor said.

What should we do to prepare?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states:

“Most people who become infected experience mild illness and recover, but it can be more severe for others. Take care of your health and protect others by doing the following:

Wash your hands frequently

Regularly and thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water.

Why? Washing your hands with soap and water or using alcohol-based hand rub kills viruses that may be on your hands.

Maintain social distancing

Maintain at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing.

Why? When someone coughs or sneezes they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain virus. If you are too close, you can breathe in the droplets, including the COVID-19 virus if the person coughing has the disease.

Avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth

Why? Hands touch many surfaces and can pick up viruses. Once contaminated, hands can transfer the virus to your eyes, nose or mouth. From there, the virus can enter your body and can make you sick.

Practice respiratory hygiene

Make sure you, and the people around you, follow good respiratory hygiene. This means covering your mouth and nose with your bent elbow or tissue when you cough or sneeze. Then dispose of the used tissue immediately.

Why? Droplets spread virus. By following good respiratory hygiene you protect the people around you from viruses such as cold, flu, and COVID-19.

If you have fever, cough, and difficulty breathing, seek medical care early

Stay home if you feel unwell. If you have a fever, cough, and difficulty breathing, seek medical attention and call in advance. Follow the directions of your local health authority.

Why? National and local authorities will have the most up to date information on the situation in your area. Calling in advance will allow your health care provider to quickly direct you to the right health facility. This will also protect you and help prevent spread of viruses and other infections.”

What is the best way to slow the spread of coronavirus?

In response to this question, the NHS states:

“Wash your hands more often than usual, for 20 seconds and whenever you:

  • get home or into work
  • blow your nose, sneeze or cough
  • eat or handle food

It's important to use soap and water or a hand sanitiser.”

Mind over matter

This Psychology Today article states that the Coronavirus “is infecting our minds, not our lungs.”

They highlight that very low risks of this new illness and how they believe the biggest challenge is actually to our minds and mental wellbeing.

Stress can cause more harm

The stress of this situation could potentially cause more problems. As this article on 10 top tips for stress management explains: 

“When we perceive a situation as demanding, dangerous or threatening, we can feel stressed and anxious. This can be accompanied by physical reactions in our body, such as increased heart rate, sweaty palms/skin, rapid shallow breathing, or even shaking with nerves.

This is because every thought we have creates a biochemical reaction in our bodies. Stress is not just in your head, it’s in your body. When we feel apprehensive our bodies respond with the stress response, which releases cortisol, adrenaline and stress hormones into our body, activating our sympathetic nervous system…. 

When we encounter any kind of stress or threat to our general wellbeing, our body activates the stress response. However, if we are not acting on this biochemical response and using it to burn off the stress hormones, then it can cause disease.”

Are You Worried, Stressed or Anxious? What is the Difference?

If you do find that this situation is negatively impacting your mental health then seek professional help and support.

You can also listen to this empowering audio to Free Yourself From Depression - available for instant download.

In Conclusion

Whilst buying toilet paper seems to offer a sense of control in the unknown, so people don’t feel helpless, there are much better ways to respond and prepare yourself.

Whilst it may be hard to avoid the inundation of news reports and social media feeding a sense of panic, as Marisa Peer teaches, you always have a choice on how you respond. It is not the event itself, but the meaning we attach to it that has the biggest impact in our lives. 

As Taylor said “We can prepare without panicking." Get clear on the facts and practical preventions and empower yourself to relax, keep calm, and manage your stress levels.  

For more practical tips, this article explains How To Keep Your Cool: 5 Tips to Stay Calm in a Crisis.