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Irrational fear of coronavirus triggers toilet paper panic buying

Irrational fear of coronavirus triggers toilet paper panic buying

Is the recent run on toilet paper a canary in a coal mine?

Canary is a type of bird sensitive to carbon monoxide and toxic gases because they need a large quantity of oxygen to fly. These birds had been used in coal mines to indicate dangers so that miners could evacuate rather than suffocate. Therefore, a canary in a coal mine is a saying to indicate an advanced warning of some danger. Is the recent run on toilet paper a canary in a coal mine?

The run on toilet paper, driven by COVID-19 outbreak, in a few places in the world e.g. US, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia, clearly shows the ugly side of humanity and indicates irrational herd mentality is very much intact even in so called first world countries. It is worrying that such fear can potentially lead to self-fulfilling prophecy of worldwide economic flash crash.

Coronavirus does not cause diarrhea

Coronavirus COVID-19 does not cause diarrhea but why are people all over the world stockpiling toilet paper? According to WHO, symptoms of coronavirus infections include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties, but no diarrhea.

In severe cases, patients could suffer from pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), kidney failure and even death. It makes sense to buy more hand wash, hand sanitizer, and face masks. But why do people hoard toilet paper? Why did they not consider the inconvenience to other people who also need it?

Irrational fear

In a book titled ‘Irrational Exuberance’ by the former US Federal Reserve Board chairman, Alan Greenspan, he used the term irrational exuberance to describe behavior of market participants driving up asset prices in the period leading up to the dot-com bubble.

Logical thinking was thrown out of the window when investor euphoria drives up asset prices to unsustainable level. This was a case of irrational greed. Could the panic buying of toilet paper be a case of irrational fear? Let’s explore.

Supply chain disruption

Starting from 4 Feb, there have been reports of supply chain disruption such as Hyundai halting production due to the coronavirus outbreak. On 14 Feb, Bloomberg reports that Hong Kong and Singapore were running out of basic supplies including toilet paper. Not surprisingly, there have also been rumors on social media that toilet paper imported from China will run out due to supply chain disruption.

Three days later in Hong Kong, CNN reported there was a robbery of 600 toilet paper rolls and people had to queue 3 hours to buy surgical face masks. On 5 Mar, there was a report of a 50-year-old man tasered due to a fight over toilet paper in NSW, Australia.

Video [2:46]. Australians panic buy, toilet paper suppliers out of stock

Case study: Toilet paper panic buying in Australia


Supermarkets in Australia were well stocked with toilet paper until the news of their first coronavirus death on the 1st of March. The day before, Australia only had 25 confirmed coronavirus cases and 11 of them have recovered. According to a news report, Australia imports 40% of its toilet paper from China and the rest is manufactured locally. While the level of dependence on China for toilet paper is high, it seems that local production should be able to meet demands and there should be no issues with supply.

What about the demand side of the equation? According to Statista, Australians use ~88 toilet paper rolls per person in a year. This translates to approximately 3.4 rolls per person to satisfy their defecation need should a 14-day nationwide quarantine be imposed.

The panic buying of toilet paper is such a frenzy that local retailer, Woolsworth, said they will limit four packs of toilet paper per shopper. A pack of toilet paper has a range of two to 30 rolls. Therefore, even if we use a very conservative estimate, there should be four packs times two rolls available per person at the supermarkets. This equals to 8 rolls, which should be more than enough to satisfy every Australian citizen for two weeks.

But why are toilet paper shelves empty? Bear in mind that not everyone is panicking and stocking up, so the supply crisis is largely attributable to a mob of not so civic-minded individuals. Indeed, some of these individuals are creative and have been selling incredibly marked up price of toilet paper! This is despite the fact that government officials such as Australian’s Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers have been urging people not to engage in panic buying.

More people are googling for 'toilet paper' since the outbreak.
Click for large image.

Calm before the storm

The year 2020 will be remembered as the year of the virus. It started with the closing of the Huanan seafood market on the 1st Jan, with panic behind the scene mostly in China while the rest of the world remains largely oblivious to the coronavirus threats. By 28 Feb, the Dow Jones industrial average had its worst one-day drop of 1,190 points.

At the time of this writing, the Dow fell 970 points again and Australian shares are also sliding. From travel to education to financial industries, they have all been hit. “Too many canaries have flown out from the coal mine” as harbingers of impending economic disaster.

The latest run on toilet paper is just another sign that the spirit of humanity has started to crack. Judging from the speed at which a toilet paper crisis emerges unexpectedly so quickly, the coming economic crash may be so sudden we will be dumbstruck by it.

Hope is fear’s antithesis

While social media is great for us to stay connected, meet new people and learn new things, it has potentially acted as a catalyst to drive fear out of proportion. The run on toilet paper shows how irrational human beings can become and some people even wish to profit from it by taking advantage of the situation.

It is understandable that one might fear the current coronavirus outbreak that now has almost 100,000 confirmed cases worldwide, which has been considered as a pandemic by Germany. It does not help that official statistics are not likely to reflect the truth.

However, hoarding supplies is not the answer and only shows how divided mankind is when facing what is possibly the greatest infection threat since the 1918 Spanish flu. Fear can weaken our immune system, leads to cardiovascular damage and gastrointestinal problems such as irritable bowel syndrome.

Isn’t it ironic if one hoards toilet paper and needs it because of fear leading to gastrointestinal problems? Another self-fulfilling prophecy? The cure of fear is hope and so, please beam positive messages and help your families, friends and neighbors, and share that toilet paper.

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