About a month ago, supermarkets in Hong Kong and Singapore were rampaged by panic buyers. More recently, stores in Japan, the United States, and Australia also fell victim to stockpiling. Across the world, we see that people are zeroing in on one commodity in particular — toilet paper. There is now a shortage of the bathroom essential, which has led to armed gang robbery for toilet paper in Hong Kong and people taking them from public restrooms in Japan. In Australia, a cafe started accepting toilet paper as payment.
But why is toilet paper, of all things, the most valuable product amidst the pandemic?
“When people face uncertainties about the future, they would look for information and clues with reference to others,” said Dr. Tan Ern Ser, Associate Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore.
That means, when some people start panic buying, others tend to follow suit. And when people hoard toilet paper, we get a lot of panic buyers stocking up on them too.
The whole toilet paper hoo-ha isn’t without its logic. Amidst the anxiety of being quarantined at home due to the coronavirus, getting a clean wipe ranks high on people’s list of priorities.
“People have established certain norms and practices in their everyday life with regards to how much they need to maintain their preferred lifestyle,” Tan explained. “And two basic categories of items they need in their everyday life relate to consumption (food) and personal hygiene (toilet paper and tissue paper).”
A psychological theory suggests that stockpiling gives people a sense of control during a public health crisis where they are, for the most part, helpless. It seems like the bigger the item, the greater the sense of control. And the sheer bulkiness of toilet roll packets makes them one of the most popular items to hoard. Making big purchases, literally, during a big crisis is our coping mechanism for dealing with something we have very little control over.
On Friday, February 7, the Singaporean government raised its disease outbreak response status to code orange. According to Singapore’s Ministry of Health, this meant that the coronavirus would have “moderate to high public health impact.” And boy, did Singaporeans spiral into the rabbit hole of panic buying over that weekend.
One resident visited her neighbourhood supermarket and saw a scene right out of a doomsday movie.
A quick look at supermarkets today, about a month after the panic buying weekend, showed that not all stores in Singapore bore the brunt of irrational stockpiling. But for supermarkets that did, it was mayhem.
“I saw some people buying 10, even 20 packets of toilet paper,” recalled a supermarket employee. Each packet typically contains ten rolls of toilet paper.
Now, back to the question — why toilet paper?
“I have no idea,” said the supermarket employee with a little laugh.
“The internet!” said Regine Tan, a student at the National University of Singapore. “People see what others are doing and they have FOMO.”
Messaging groups in apps like WhatsApp have become echo chambers of coronavirus-induced paranoia.
In Hong Kong, there were rumours that China was making more face masks and less toilet paper, since the two items are made of the same raw materials. This apparently came from a widely circulated WhatsApp message, which claimed that China would soon stop its export of toilet paper to Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government eventually dismissed this rumour as fake news, but toilet paper rolls had already been swept off the shelves by then.
All these explanations seem to boil down to herd mentality, which is helplessly human at its core. But this doesn’t mean we should all give in to our selfish instincts. After all, empathy and generosity are distinctly human traits too.
Irrational stockpiling could aggravate shortages, as people overbuy items they don’t need, while depriving others who actually need those items. The prices of these items may also be distorted as a result of sudden shortages.
Many have started to consider alternatives to toilet paper. Australian bidet companies saw a surge in inquiries towards the end of February, around the time when the Australian government announced that a coronavirus pandemic was imminent. Google search entries for bidets from Australia also increased 350 percent from late February to early March.
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This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.