Remember that scene in “The Office” when the Dunder Mifflin employees are playing Desert Island? They are all standing outside the Scranton branch after Ryan sets off the fire alarm. Jim proposes they play Desert Island, and each person is allowed to bring three books with them. Dwight, being his normal self, says he would bring the following: “'Physician’s Desk Reference'…hollowed out. Inside: waterproof matches, iodine tablets, beet seeds, protein bars, a NASA blanket and, in case I get bored, ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.’” Dwight, being practical, covers the essentials. With those supplies, he will have heat, water, food, shelter and even some pleasure reading. The one thing he didn’t consider: THE TOILET PAPER.
Recently, the COVID-19 outbreak has led many people to rush to the store to stock up on supplies. This is not an unheard-of phenomenon. Living in Connecticut, it is common for people to rush to the stores as soon as a big snowstorm is projected to slam the Northeast. The first two items to fly off the shelves are bread and milk, and a common joke is that people must really love consuming milk sandwiches while watching the snowfall. This hoarding mentality is understandable, however, because people want to ensure they have enough supplies to weather the storm. Hoarding is a natural reaction when we are faced with times of uncertainty. As for the COVID-19 outbreak, we may have gone a bit overboard.
Across the world, people are scavenging Costcos, Walmarts and other big-box stores for toilet paper. Lines for these retailers can be seen snaking around the outside of the store. Some people have resorted to stealing toilet paper from public restrooms, while others have taken more extreme measures. In Hong Kong, armed robbers scored a massive load of toilet paper, making off with 600 rolls. The value of the toilet paper was around $130, according to the Hong Kong police.
The question still stands: Why toilet paper? Hand sanitizer and other disinfectant products have also been bought up, but these are items that actively fight the virus and might help with prevention. Scientists have yet to find a link between the amount of toilet paper one owns and the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 (despite what TikTok will have you believe). My explanation for the hoarding is that toilet paper is an item that many fear going without. There are few moments that put the fear of God in a person like reaching over and realizing you are out of toilet paper when you need it most. Having an abundance of the product can make people feel safer and more secure. This is coupled with the herd mentality that has driven people to panic over the availability of toilet paper.
As of right now, there is no threat to the supply chain of the hottest item on the market. Unlike cars, electronics and many other goods that rely on a complex global supply chain, toilet paper has a very simple supply chain. Like other paper products, it is made from trees and processed in paper mills. The vast majority of toilet paper is sourced and produced in North America. The bare shelves in the toilet paper aisles are not reflections of a supply shortage but rather a panicked reaction by shoppers seeking comfort. Stores are ramping up purchase orders for toilet paper, and most are seeing shelves restocked by the start of business the next day.
Although it may be comforting to hug tight that “ultra-jumbo-extra family pack” of Charmin, we have to remember that for every additional roll we add to our personal collection, someone else might need it that wasn’t able to get to the store in time. Over the past week, we have seen drastic changes in the United States, from shutting down international travel to closing restaurants and bars. Over the next couple of weeks, we will likely see many new developments and more changes to our daily lives. My advice: Wash your hands A LOT, get updates about the virus from trusted sources (the CDC, WHO and NIH), follow posted guidelines from these trusted sources and, above all, keep calm.