What panic buying says about Australians
The death toll from the coronavirus is rising by the minute, global share markets are shedding trillions of dollars and Australia is apparently on the cusp of a recession.
But the key takeaway from the week's news is people are wild about their toilet paper.
The virus has claimed thousands of lives around the world but is still yet to be classified as a pandemic, with cases in Australia seemingly concentrated to returning cruise ships, quarantine spots and a nursing home.
Yet fear has swept the nation, materialising in a hysterical wave of panicked stockpiling of groceries.
Canned foods, bleach and other household essentials have been snatched up but it's the empty shelves of toilet rolls that have captured the imagination of social media.
There was even rumours of a knife being pulled over one battle for dwindling loo paper, while news sites from New York to London have reported on the toilet paper supermarket scuffle.
"There's quite a few things going on here and it is therefore a fairly complex issue," clinical psychologist Dr Ros Knight told news.com.au.
"For whatever reason, and there could be a few contributing factors, people are getting quite anxious about COVID-19."
An Australian newspaper has printed an extra eight pages to be used as toilet paper after coronavirus fears prompted customers to bulk buy supplies, leaving some supermarket shelves bare. https://t.co/1jZCbQUZLt— CNN (@CNN) March 5, 2020
Dr Knight, who is also president of the Australian Psychological Society, said the bizarre reaction is likely the result of concerned consumers trying to take ownership of a seemingly helpless endemic.
And she implored Australians to express their anxiety in a healthy way and instead focus on understanding the real dangers of the virus rather than the unnecessary hysteria.
"If you're hearing about a virus that's going to cause a pandemic and it's killing people all over the world, if you're hearing the hype rather than the facts then you go 'what am I going to do to protect myself? I might end up stuck at home for a while so I'll make sure I stock up," she said.
"In reality, of course, it's not necessary or at least definitely not at this point. It's not an appropriate response to the level of threat we're currently under."
Dr Knight says both traditional and non-traditional media have a part to play in this.
Streem, a media monitoring group, released data on Thursday revealing the phrase "toilet paper" in coronavirus stories had surged by nearly 11,000 per cent compared to the previous six weeks.
This kind of dialogue has contributed to the inappropriate response from a large section of the country relative to the real threat of the virus, she said.
We're afraid that's not a typo. Mentions of "toilet paper" in coronavirus stories are indeed up 10,945%. 🙄 pic.twitter.com/3fSAHjuKhg— Streem (@streemau) March 5, 2020
I believe Australia's response has been hysterical, to say the least.— Leftwing Bastard (@_SocialDemocrat) March 3, 2020
If only the UK Government reacted to the 1000s that die every year due to homelessness, poverty, deprivation, lack of decent healthcare and mental health as they have to the #CoronaVirus but we know most of the hysterical response is motivated by politics and PR.— LIAM⛔️✌️ (@ljam185) March 6, 2020
Dr Knight says it's OK for people to be a little anxious but it's important to proceed with a rational and well-informed response.
"And that's really about sticking to the facts - getting on to the Department of Health website or listening to sources where the talk comes from the fact, not allowing themselves to get overwhelmed," Dr Knight told news.com.au.
Queensland University of Technology retail expert Dr Gary Mortimer said the shortage was exacerbated by the bulky nature of the products and supermarkets' inability to stockpile them in storerooms.
"The challenge with toilet paper is it comes in big, bulky packets and supermarkets can really only hold 150 to 200 packets in an aisle - those packets fill up an aisle pretty quickly," he explained.
"Because they're holding very little toilet paper because of space restrictions, it only takes 100 people to walk in and buy two packets instead of one for suddenly the demand to go up by 100 per cent.
"If you walk down the canned tuna aisle you might see a couple of gaps but if you sell 200 packets of toilet paper, you end up with an empty aisle which people think means a crisis with no toilet paper anywhere. But there is toilet paper - it's just coming in the back door.
"They replenish it overnight, and then sell out by lunchtime."
Ritchies Stores chief executive Fred Harrison said we all had a part to play in distilling the panic.
"We need the public to be a little bit more responsible," the supermarket boss said in a statement provided to news.com.au.
"We're not going to be isolated indoors for months - we will be able to get out and shop.
"There is no shortage of toilet rolls if people purchased sensibly and there's absolutely no need to panic buy.
"Manufacturers can tool up, but it does take time and it's not something that can be fixed in 24 - 48 hours."