It is everywhere on social media and in the news, pictures of empty toilet paper shelves on supermarkets. This morning, I woke up to a message on my phone sharing that my local supermarket got a new load of toilet paper. I rushed to buy some. It was 7 AM when I arrived at the market, and although too early for my quarantine routine, it was late to acquire the valuable item. Then, I decided to investigate why people are going crazy on toilet paper, but it is still easy to buy canned food, eggs, and pasta.
Dr.Steven Taylor, in his book Psychology of Pandemics, states that when people feel threatened with infection, they are more like to experience the emotion of disgust. Dr.Steven told The Independent: "Disgust is like an alarm mechanism that warns you to avoid some contamination. For instance, if I see a hand railing covered in saliva, I'm not going to touch it, I'm going to feel disgusted. And that keeps us safe." Therefore, our brains start making synapses and boom! We choose toilet paper to embody the hero who will fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Harvard Professor Karestan Koenen says, "When you see extreme responses. It is because people feel like their survival is threatened, and they need to do something to feel like they are in control."
The scientific response to our main question is related to how we react to panic. For example, if you see yourself in a life-threat situation, like when you are about to be hit by a car, you respond fast. It would be very dangerous if, in an extreme case, like that, your brain decided to stop you for a few minutes to think about the best next step. Therefore your frontal cortex, which is the rational part of your mind, gets overrun by the amygdala, and you react with your gut.
However, what happens during a long term threat, such as a pandemic? Well, in this case, it would be good if your frontal cortex is in charge of the decisions, allowing you to assess the risk and plan your next steps more carefully.
I see the logic, but I'm still intrigued about the whole toilet paper stockpiling.
There were at least three pandemic events in the 20th century. Of those, the Spanish Flu that happened in 1918 is considered the most lethal. According to the ESWI (European Scientific Working group on Influenza), the virus killed at least 40 million people worldwide in the 16 weeks between September and December 1918. Then, what was the most popular purchase at that time?
In the winter of 1918, people were rushing to the pharmacies to buy Vicks VapoRub. At that time, doctors used to inject patients with camphor, which is extracted from camphor trees and has anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. Interestingly, people also used camphor to combat the Black Death pandemic in the mid-1300s. Camphor was the active principle of Vicks VapoRub. But there was another popular item that became scarce in 1918. Onions! Since old times, humans believe that onions have medicinal properties. Egyptians and Greeks used onions for fertility and sore muscles. Although there is no scientific evidence, there were many reports of people sharing stories about how they treated the Spanish Flu using onions to attract and destroy the virus in their houses.
"Me and my 13-month-old daughter have been sick for a week. Boiled some onions and left them on the coffee table for an hour, she is now walking around, and I feel so much better. Thanks." - a story reported in an article from the Wall Street Journal by Melinda Beck in 2009.
An onion car arrived today
Labeled red, white, and blue
Eat onions, plenty, every day
And keep away the "Flu."
My conclusion is that in 2020, we might have more confidence in scientific research to appoint what will stop the COVID-19. But, we are still vulnerable to the unknown, and because of that, we tend to be emotional about our short term decisions. I see on the news that everyone is rushing to buy toilet papers; hence I wake up early to hunt toilet paper for my family. That is what any good parent would do.
Fun Fact: It is not the first time that people rush to buy toilet paper. In December 1973, Johnny Carson told a joke about the lack of toilet paper. The Americans didn't laugh. Instead, the stores were emptied of toilet paper because everyone went to buy as much as they could. Interestingly that was no shortage of toilet paper, it was just a joke.