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.
How to protect yourself from COVID-19 (coronavirus). Post continues below.
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.