Coronavirus: why is everyone buying toilet paper?

With images of people filling their cars with multi-packs of toilet roll, questions have been raised over the specific demand for this particular product.

¿Por qué el papel higiénico es lo más comprado los supermercados?

The image of empty supermarket shelves is something that many of us have seen with our own eyes, whether in the shops themselves or from viral pictures that have circulated on social media. As the spread of coronavirus has grown and lockdowns have been announced, a mixture of panic buying and long-term planning to reduce the number of shopping trips, has seen many households fill up their fridges, freezers and cupboards.

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Coronavirus toilet paper demand

Curiously, one particular product been the focus of inordinate attention in the coronavirus hoarding debate: toilet paper. Not only have the aforementioned photos of people leaving supermarkets with several multi-packs but there have been numerous trends set - including the footballing #coronaviruschallenge - that looked to make light of what is actually a very serious situation for many.

A few weeks ago in Australia a similar situation arose and some supermarkets decided to set a limit on the number of purchases per person.

So why have so many people been buying toilet paper?

Clearly no one wants to be left short of paper when they are finished with their bathroom business, instead scrambling around for an alternative. But surely the same concern would apply to numerous other products?

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According to psychologist Steven Taylor, what is occurring here is a "snowball" effect, his belief being that if we see a lot of people loading the car with toilet paper, there is a good chance that we will do the same. It’s that idea that maybe a run on supermarket stock will have a negative impact if there is another type of runs. Nappies too have seen similar surges in demand, but have been less talked about.

Another factor in this is perception. Toilet paper is much more bulky than other products so it is much more visible compared with smaller items that can fit into bags.

Panic at a possible shortage

Taylor, who is the author of the book Psychology of Pandemics, also explains that images of empty shelves and shopping trolleys full of supplies have flooded news reports and social media, and that drives people to panic too and stock up.

"People, being social creatures, look for signs of what is safe and what is dangerous," he said. All those photos of empty shelves can make people think they should go out right now and buy toilet paper while they can. "And what starts as a perceived shortage can turn into a real shortage," Taylor adds, as well as highlighting the dangers of misinformation on social media, which is rife at times like this.

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