What on earth’s going on with the toilet paper

People around the world are reacting to Covid-19 in their own unique ways, but there is one response that has seemingly transcended borders and cultures: the panic buying of toilet paper.

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Empty shelves where toilet paper used to sit in a supermarket in Ireland

If there’s one image that captures the panic sweeping across many countries this week, it’s the empty store shelves where toilet paper used to sit.

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Fights over loo roll have been reported in supermarkets in Australia

Images of people fighting in supermarkets to grab armfuls of loo roll have spread across social media. In Australia, the UK, Ireland and the US — to name a few — huge numbers of people are rushing to stock up.  

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Social media may be fueling panic buying

When reporters asked shoppers as they left one grocery store with arms full of toilet paper, why they were doing it, some of them said: “I don’t know, everyone else was.”

There is a historic precedent for stockpiling during pandemics.

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Vics VapoRub was hoarded during the 1918 flu pandemic

During the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak, people reportedly hoarded stocks of Vicks VapoRub, 

In an attempt to prevent panic-buying from cleaning them out, some UK supermarkets are limiting the amount of certain items each customer can buy.

The list of limited items includes pasta, tinned goods, hand soap, long-life milk and toilet paper.

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Stores in Japan have been cleaned out of toilet paper

The more images of stockpiling that emerged on social media however the more panic buying that ensued.

But why are people panic-buying toilet roll of all things?

No-one believes that toilet paper will provide them with any kind of special protection against the coronavirus, and as the self-isolation period would not be expected to extend beyond weeks or a month or two at most, people are unlikely to need so much toilet paper.

No one wants to run out of the essentials, but is there really a toilet paper shortage?


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Most toilet paper in US bathrooms is produced in North America

For example, the vast majority of toilet paper consumed by Americans is made in North America, only about 10 percent of the rolls that end up in American bathrooms come from China and India. 

And while those imports have been delayed because of the broader bottleneck of shipments from Asia, major retailers say toilet paper hasn’t been out of stock in stores for more than a day or two, or even a few hours. 

Paper industry executives say they are raising production to meet demand, but there is only so much capacity that they can or are willing to add, (they expect an excess of loo rolls after the epidemic subsides.)

Toilet paper is typically made to order, but because it takes up so much room, storing large quantities is not profitable, so the industry typically has only a few months of inventory on hand.

Consumer behaviour expert Dr Rohan Miller told the BBC that “I think people want to make sure they have some comforts in their lives if they’re going to be shacked up with their family for a long time.”

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Don’t panic

Panic buying has also led to a shortage of hand soap, thermometers hand sanitisers and antibacterial wipes in many places. Other cleaning products like bleach have similarly seen a surge in sales.

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Purell sanitiser usually retails for about $9

The demand for these products has been so high that their resale value has risen as much as 5,000% in some cases – with 49p bottles of hand soap selling on eBay for £24.99.

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Tescos in the UK has limited high demand items

Tesco has already limited high demand items like dried pasta and tinned tomatoes to five per customer, while many other supermarkets are limiting the sale of anti-bacterial gels two per customer while stocks last.

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