As Novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread around the world, anxiety is rising in Australia. Shoppers fearful of quarantine measures have been stocking up on supplies to last out a week or two of isolation.
Recent days have seen reports of shortages of hand sanitiser and warnings that batteries and other electronic items could be next. However, the surge in demand for one particular commodity has seen supermarket shelves stripped bare: toilet paper.
Listen: Should you stockpile loo paper? Should you wear mask? An infectious disease specialist answers your most pressing questions.
It’s not just Australians. Shops in Japan, the US and New Zealand have also run low on the precious sanitary rolls. In Hong Kong, ambitious thieves held up a supermarket to steal a delivery.
But why toilet paper?
The question has been in the air for at least the past month, but it’s now become hard to avoid.
We asked four experts for their thoughts.
Niki Edwards, School of Public Health and Social Work, Queensland University of Technology:
“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 behaviours is far from ideal.”
Brian Cook, Community Engagement for Disaster Risk Reduction project, University of Melbourne:
“It’s an interesting question. 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.
“I expect there is also a pragmatic element. Toilet paper is a product that takes a lot of space, and is therefore not something people have a lot of under normal circumstances.
“A lot of people likely also use toilet paper as a tissue, and therefore imagine themselves needing a lot if they have the flu or a flu-like illness.