The great toilet paper panic buying

A notice on the shelf at a Co-op supermarket

A notice attached to the shelves for toilet paper, kitchent rolls, etc, at a Co-op supermarket in London, notifying customers of rationing certain products. Photographed: 8 March 2020.

I was hoping that the people of Britain would retain their reputed sangfroid and phlegmatism at a time of pestilence, alas the great toilet paper panic buying seems to have begun. There were none left in the supermarkets nearby. The Co-op store was rationing a number of products, as can be seen in the photograph. Only forlorn kitchen rolls were available among the items listed.

What is it that makes people buy so many loo rolls? Is it really the fear of toilet paper running out, or is it something much deeper psychologically? Surely there are other things that are more important and relevant than toilet paper, such as food and medication? Of course, life will be extremely uncomfortable without toilet paper, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be without it, but it is different from potential starvation or death due to lack of medicine.

3 rolls of toilet paper

I still have a few rolls of toilet paper at home, so I should be fine for a while. As a single male, I normally buy toilet paper when there is only about half a roll left.

Perhaps it is displacement. There is a lot of fear and uncertainty as the coronavirus spreads around the globe, and we as individuals feel almost powerless. Buying toilet paper is doing something. And it is not going to be wasted. Rolls of toilet paper may take up room, but they are cheap, and eventually they are going to be used. Rather than washing hands regularly or not touching the face, which we have been repeatedly told, it is far easier to feel in control of the situation by buying toilet paper.

By all accounts, the next few days will see an increase in confirmed cases in the UK and may give an indication as to the speed and magnitude with which the virus is spreading. Running out of toilet paper might not be the most fearful thing that British society has to face.