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We spoke to the guy who advised we “pandemic stash” toilet paper. He's clarified what he meant.

Queensland virologist Dr Ian Mackay has been studying respiratory viruses for most of his career. He’s been expecting something like COVID-19 to come along. So two weeks ago, he and his wife, Dr Katherine Arden, wrote an article on his blog to help people prepare for a pandemic.

“The risk is that an Australian epidemic of this virus appears on our doorstep, and then everybody does actually panic because they haven’t thought about this at all,” he tells Mamamia.

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Video by WHO

One of the things Dr Mackay suggested was that people start to put together a “pandemic stash” – a box of food and supplies to last the household for two weeks. Among the items he suggested buying, a few at a time, were pasta, beans, dried fruit, long-life milk, medications, tissues, nappies – and a family pack of toilet paper.

“I know some people have accused me of triggering things or firing up,” he says. “I think this is just part of planning.”

The article took off. It was read by hundreds of thousands of people and referenced “up the wazoo”. Dr Mackay says people were accepting the message calmly. And then “more political higher-up stuff” happened.

“People were waving around COVID pandemic plans and saying, ‘Well, we’re going to call it a pandemic even if the WHO [World Health Organisation] won’t,’ and I think that was a bit of a trigger for the community to feel like things had suddenly just accelerated. So rather than that calmness we were hoping for and we were seeing, it changed with the messaging.”

What happened next has already gone down in history. Supermarket shelves across Australia were cleared of toilet paper, as well as some other items. Some people filled their trolley with family packs. There was fighting in the aisles, and even a knife pulled.

toilet paper shortage
Image: Supplied.
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“Panic buying is stupid and selfish and ridiculous,” Dr Mackay says. “Unfortunately, without any authorities coming out and saying, ‘Yeah, we should do this or shouldn’t do this or we should do it for longer than two weeks or not at all,’ everyone’s left to make their own call and that’s never a good idea for a community.”

As “frustrated” as he feels by the sight of empty supermarket shelves, Dr Mackay says he still believes it’s important for people to prepare.

“I stand by pretty much everything that’s in that article,” he says. “Whether we’re stocking up because shelves become empty, because people are sick that would normally deliver our goods to supermarkets, or because we’re all told to stay home to enact some sort of social distancing policy to prevent spread, or whether one of us is sick in a family so we’re isolated at home for 14 days, all of those may mean we don’t have access to the all the goods that we would normally get on the shelves.”

Dr Mackay says it’s impossible to tell at this stage how many Australians will become infected. Estimates range from 10 per cent to 80 per cent of the population in the first wave.

“We know that there’ll be deaths. We’re seeing them already. We know that there’ll be lots of cases. We’re seeing that start to pick up every day. It will come here and it will come here in pretty decent numbers.”

Whatever happens, he and his wife have their own “pandemic stash” ready for themselves and their two children.

“We have one family pack of toilet paper. That’ll keep us going for two weeks. We’ve got some pasta, we’ve got some fruit, we’ve checked our medications. We’ve got some chocolate and we’ve got some games and we’re all good.”

What do you think about people panic buying? Let us know in the comments.

Feature image: Getty.

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