Over the last week, social media has been flooded with images of bare supermarket shelves and empty aisles, with patrons stocking up on items like toilet paper and bottled water in fear of a coronavirus pandemic or mass lockdown. While it originally looked like the panic-buying mindset had bypassed the region, toilet paper aisles in Coles and Woolworths appeared bare or completely empty by Wednesday night.
At Coles on Wednesday morning, the toilet paper aisle appeared fully stocked, with staff saying the store was busier than general but not in any specific area.
By that evening, however, the toilet paper aisle was completely empty, with patrons stocking up in high amounts throughout the day and the panic-buying mindset taking hold. Those in genuine need of toilet paper had to go to competing chain Woolworths.
Over at Tumut Woolworths on Wednesday night, although there was some toilet paper left it was very minimal. Store Manager Fiona McDougall said that they sold 130 packets of toilet paper in one day, which is usually how much they sell over one week. Along with toilet paper, they were very short on hand sanitiser.
Due to the high demand for toilet paper across the country, supermarket giant Woolworths announced a four-packet per person buying limit.
“Woolworths has today moved to apply a quantity limit on toilet paper packs to ensure more customers have access to these products,” the company said in a statement on Wednesday.
“The purchase limit of four packs per customer transaction applies in-store and online.”
Mrs McDougall originally said on Wednesday morning that the Tumut branch was not enforcing this limit because there didn’t seem to be any panic-buying taking place, but their stance changed quickly once toilet paper started flying off the shelves throughout the day.
The four-packet per person buying limit is now in place.
Mrs McDougall said they are re-stocking on Friday and that toilet paper manufacturers are ramping up production to deal with the high demand.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday that there is no cause for panic, and that it is important that people “just go about their business and their normal processes in a calm manner.”
“[Coles and Woolworths] had spoken to me about the arrangements they have in place around their supply lines and things like this, but I would just urge people to be going about their business in the normal way when it comes to those matters,” he said.
It leaves us with the question of where is this panic-buying stemming from, and why toilet paper of all things? Is there genuine anxiety growing about a possible pandemic, or are people simply stocking up because everyone else appears to be – or both?
Niki Edwards from the School of Public Health and Social Work at Queensland University of Technology told The Conversation that “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.”
She also said that the news media has “a lot to answer for” in how it is reporting about the virus.
“While honesty about threats is critical, building hysteria and promoting inappropriate behaviours is far from ideal,” she said.
The sharing of viral videos on social media by news outlets of people grabbing packets off of shelves in a frenzy and lining up at the checkout with trollies stacked 5-packets high, all posted without context, could certainly be a contributor to panic.
Alex Russell from the School of Health, Medical and Applied Sciences at Central Queensland University suggested that the empty shelf space seems more noticeable than other shortages, such as hand sanitiser, because toilet paper takes up so much space on the shelf and it is unusual for so much of it to be gone.
He also said that “we might be noticing it more is because there aren’t easy substitutions.”
“If the supermarket is out of a particular ingredient for dinner, you can just get something else, or an entirely different dinner.”
So, rather than cause any more panic or instill worries in those who might already be anxious, here is what we know so far about coronavirus:
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has killed 3.4 per cent of cases globally. While this makes the virus more fatal than the seasonal flu, which has a fatality rate of less than 1 per cent, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom said that the virus can still be controlled, and the fatality rate may be much lower if there are thousands of unreported mild cases of the disease.
NSW Health says that face masks are not necessary for the general population, and that unless you have transited through mainland China in the last 14 days or been in contact with someone who has been confirmed as having coronavirus, there is “minimal risk of you being infected.”
The best way to protect against the virus, and other respiratory infections, is to practice good hygiene by:
– making sure to regularly clean your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand rub
– cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing with tissue or a flexed elbow
– avoid close contact with anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms
– make sure you stay home if you are sick.
You can read more on the NSW Health website here: https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/Infectious/diseases/Pages/coronavirus-facts.aspx.