Pandemics and Panic Purchasing
The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus appeared
in far eastern Eurasia in late 2019.
Within a few months it had spread around the world as
COVID-19 or coronavirus disease 2019.
People were suffering and dying because of an invisible and
easily transmitted pathogen.
And so, there was panic around the world.
Mobs of anxious people swarmed stores, buying all the paper products.
Shelves were suddenly bare.
Any additional supply disappeared as soon as it arrived.
This was not the first time.
Toilet paper is now a common panic purchase during natural disasters.
And, almost exactly 100 years before, a worldwide pandemic had led
to panic buying of another product.
Toilet paper was relatively new during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
"Wipe or Wash?" page for details.
Gayetty's Medicated Paper went on the market in 1860.
Toilet paper rolls and dispensers were patented in the US in 1871.
But during the Spanish-American War in 1898,
the US military still did not use toilet paper.
And, typhoid in the US military was twice as common then
as it had been in the Civil War of 1861-1865.
The obsession during the 1918 pandemic wasn't for toilet paper.
It involved a popular over-the-counter remedy for some flu symptoms.
The 1918 VapoRub Craze
Vick's Family Remedies was a two-man operation in the 1890s.
Their most popular product was Croup and Pneumonia Salve.
They changed the name to the catchier Vick's Magic Croup Salve in 1905,
and then rebranded it as VapoRub in 1912.
Ingredients then, as now, included camphor, menthol, turpentine oil,
eucalyptus oil, cedarwood oil, nutmeg oil, and thymol.
Japan's 1918 Camphor Hegemony
Imperial Japan, newly re-engaged with the west, tried around 1907-1908
to monopolize the production of natural camphor
as an Asian forest product under its control.
The price of camphor rose with the global trade disruption and
increased demand for explosives leading into World War I.
The price of camphor rose by a factor of seven to eight over the period
from 1908 to 1918.
Then the 1918 influenza pandemic hit the world.
VapoRub sales more than tripled in just one year,
growing from $900,000 to $2,900,000.
The University of North Carolina now holds the old Vicks company archives,
and has an online exhibit on
"Profiting from the Pandemic",
including the below from North Carolina's state publication
The Health Bulletin for April 1919.
Industrial synthesis methods for camphor became common.
Camphor could be synthesized from turpentine derived from pine sap.
The price of camphor by the 1930s was half that of 1908.
Good for Vicks, bad for Japan.
So Why Toilet Paper Today?
Wipe or Wash?
The 2020 coronavirus pandemic immediately led to panic buying
and hoarding of toilet paper in all the TP-using world.
I was soon interviewed by both the Australian Broadcasting Company
and The New York Times.
They asked: Why are people fixated on toilet paper?
I didn't have much of an answer, beyond saying that panic buying
always accompanies threatening events like blizzards and hurricanes.
But then the professional psychologists and economists
started providing explanations.
Economists say that panic buying and hoarding is caused by
"zero risk bias".
Buying toilet paper at non-inflated prices provides a feeling of
control on a limited budget.
And, toilet paper will keep indefinitely, and be used eventually.
Farasat Bokhari, a health economist at the University of East Anglia
in the UK, said
"My guess is we want to feel in control and have limited budgets.
So we go buy something that is cheap to buy, that we can store,
and we know at the back of our minds that we are going to use anyway."
A similar explanation is given for all the people stockpiling
guns and ammunition as the pandemic arrived,
despite their ineffectiveness against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus,
and their high cost.
But it provides some feeling of control.
TP hoarders are eliminating one very low-probability risk with
very little effort and cost.
This takes the place of doing something that might reduce their overall risk
to a much greater degree, but at a correspondingly greater cost.
Paul Marsden, a consumer psychologist at the University of Arts London
explains the panic buying as "retail therapy".
Consumers feel that they have lost control, but buying a large supply
of toilet paper gives a sense of autonomy, a sense of participating in
a trend, and a sense of competence, being a "smart shopper" who managed
to make a large TP purchase.
Plus, toilet paper is available in large packages,
making it a more rewarding purchase.
Sander van der Linden, an assistant professor of social psychology at
Cambridge University, said that panic buying is made worse by
the anxiety driven by conflicting signals.
Scientists and medical professionals were saying that a global pandemic is
dangerous and requires significant action to mitigate its effects,
while the Trump administration was insisting that it's no big deal,
just a Democrat hoax.
People were uncertain, it might be quite dangerous.
They weren't getting consistent guidance from authority figures.
This Guy Literally Wrote The Book
Steven Taylor's book
The Psychology of Pandemics
came out in December 2019, just as many governments around the world,
although notably not the US, were realizing that a new
pathogen was spreading.
He emphasizes the psychology and associated evolutionary advantages
associated with disease.
He says that when people are threatened with infection,
they become more likely to experience feelings of disgust.
Disgust can be a useful alarm mechanism that warns you to avoid
some source of contamination.
As he put it in an interview with The Independent of the UK:
So there is a very tight connection between fear of getting
infected and disgust.
And what better tool for eliminating disgusting material than toilet paper?
I think this is how it became a conditioned symbol of safety."
Well, much of the world would argue that a
bidet is a far better tool
for eliminating disgusting material.
If I accidentally put my hand in something nasty,
I don't say "Oh, I must wipe my hand with some flimsy tissue paper."
I want to wash with soap and water.
If people should be buying anything out of panic, it should be
bidets or washing toilet seats.
But then we're talking about irrational panic and hoarding.
Of course it isn't logical.
The Space Diaper Kidnapping