Being prepared for a time of crisis is never a bad idea. It’s always recommended that you identify the types of disasters you might face in your region, prepare a survival kit with essential items like first aid, fresh water, and non-perishable food, and make a plan with your family in the case of an emergency. The global coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic is confronting people around the world with a challenge that most haven’t prepared for at all.
When the first cases of COVID-19 began surfacing outside of China, consumers began purchasing disinfectant wipes, sprays, hand sanitizers, and face masks en masse. Many stores ran out within days and had to put limits on what each customer could buy to prevent hoarding. And then something a bit less expected happened. Instead of stocking up on vital supplies, like non-perishable food items, customers began buying up all the…toilet paper.
It’s a bit vexing why this would happen. COVID-19 very rarely seems to impact the digestive health of people who become sick. Frequent bathroom trips wouldn’t be expected. And yet, if you tried to visit a store to get toilet paper (as of this writing) you’ll probably find the shelves bare.
Why on Earth is this happening? Well, there could be a few reasons, all based in human psychology.
Stocking up gives consumers a sense of control
Let’s face it: during a pandemic, things are pretty scary. A novel virus is, in fact, pretty novel to humans. When COVID-19 began its spread, health officials didn’t know much about it outside of what is assumed about coronaviruses in general. This left a lot of people feeling very uncertain about what to expect. The virus has quickly begun spreading around the world with little sign of slowing down. Stocking up on toilet paper may simply give people a sense of control over an uncontrollable situation.
“It’s all due to this wave of anticipatory anxiety,” Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Psychology of Pandemics,” said in an interview with CNN.  “People become anxious ahead of the actual infection. They haven’t thought about the bigger picture, like what are the consequences of stockpiling toilet paper.”
People aren’t clear on what to do
In the age of social media and a 24-hour news cycle, lots of misinformation and conflicting information can spread. Recently, the program Fox & Friends was caught churning out bad information  about the safety of flying, and Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera told viewers that holding your breath could indicate whether or not you were sick.
“If you can’t hold your breath for 10 seconds. Everyone should do that. Hold your breath for 10 seconds. If you can hold your breath for 10 seconds then you don’t have this disease,” Rivera told viewers. Unfortunately, this is inaccurate.  When people are presented with so much conflicting information, they can panic and engage in extreme hoarding behaviors.
“When people are told something dangerous is coming, but all you need to do is wash your hands, the action doesn’t seem proportionate to the threat,” says Taylor. “Special danger needs special precautions.”
There wasn’t much reassurance early on from officials
COVID-19 hit some countries faster and harder than others. For weeks, those of us in countries where the virus was catching on slowly watched in horror as other nations enforced curfews, shut down businesses, and confined people to their homes. Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, public officials were slow to provide clear direction.
“Unless people have seen … official promises that everyone will be taken care of, they are left to guess at the probability of needing the extra toilet paper, sooner rather than later,” Baruch Fischhoff, a psychologist and professor in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy and the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, told CNN.
“The fact that there are no official promises might increase those probabilities.”
Panic buying leads to more panic buying
When COVID-19 first began spreading in Asia and Europe, I decided to stock up on some extra supplies. Nothing outrageous, just a bit more than I’d usually buy. Two nights ago, I visited my local grocery store to find that it had been cleaned out of a lot of things, including toilet paper, and I felt a twinge of panic. I didn’t need a full shopping cart of groceries, just a few items, but I felt an impulse to buy more than I needed because I saw others doing the same. What if I run out of what I need and there just isn’t anything left for me?
It turns out, I’m not alone in this phenomenon.
“People, being social creatures, we look to each other for cues for what is safe and what is dangerous,” says Taylor. “And when you see someone in the store, panic buying, that can cause a fear contagion effect.”
You could have 100 rolls of toilet paper, but seeing pictures on social media of bare shelves can trigger in you the feeling of needing to go buy even more. Taylor says that social media has been a huge driver of panic buying due to widespread fear-mongering.
So what should you do?
The spread of coronavirus around the world is scary, and panic is a normal reaction to something frightening. But it’s important that you keep your head and don’t freak out. Stay calm.
As you go about your day, wash your hands regularly, especially after touching surfaces that you aren’t sure are disinfected. Wash your hands with 20 seconds using soap and hot water. A hand sanitizer can also work in a pinch.
If you sneeze or cough, please do so into a tissue. If you don’t have a tissue, sneeze or cough into your elbow. Don’t use your hands to cover your mouth and nose.
Also important, avoid touching your face and avoid individuals who you believe may be sick. Practice social distancing. Don’t go out unless you absolutely must. Stay home. And if you are out, try to maintain a distance of approximately six feet.
Staying calm, using your head, and avoiding panic is key to ensuring that we all make it through this in one piece.
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