With the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19), it is not surprising that the demand for medical masks, hand sanitisers and hygiene-related products would skyrocket. However, at the same time, another unexpected commodity has become one of the most sought-after products in Hong Kong. This article takes a look at why residents in Hong Kong rushed to stock up their supplies on toilet paper in response to the spread of coronavirus.
What triggered this phenomenon is essentially rooted in rumours and misinformation. On 5th February, WhatsApp messages emerged about an impending shortage of toilet paper in Hong Kong due to supply disruption as a result of the shutdown of cities in China. These messages purported to be an internal update by Hong Kong supermarket Wellcome. Although the supermarket quickly denied involvement in ever posting such information, it nonetheless became viral in Hong Kong and triggered the panic buying of toilet paper and other necessities. This panic has even caused one armed gang to rob over 600 rolls of toilet paper at a supermarket in Mong Kok. However, are rumours and misinformation the only factors that fuelled this panic?
Considering this phenomenon from a behavioural standpoint allows us to pin down some explanations.
Anxiety is the central element of panic buying. When people are faced with uncertainty and the unknown, people resort into going to great lengths to deal with those fears. Undergoing panic buying helps people to feel control of the situation. Although we were told that using hand sanitiser is one of the most helpful things that we can do right now, its perceived usefulness may not be necessarily proportionate to the level of crisis that people associate with the viral outbreak. An event of this scale usually necessitates that more substantial responses be taken. This leads to people spending money on things in hopes of better preparing for themselves…such as buying toilet paper.
People’s panic over toilet paper is further exacerbated by what happened with surgical masks and hand sanitisers. Since late-January with the first confirmed case in Hong Kong, demands for surgical masks and later hand sanitisers in Hong Kong surged. Up until late-February, a common scene emerged of people queuing up outside pharmacies hoping to purchase a box of medical masks, only to be disappointed when all is sold out. The possibility that this would eventually happen with toilet paper fuelled people’s need to stockpile toilet paper in case of supply disruption.
People tend to look at one another for clues for what to do. The fact that panic buying is happening can ignite others to participate, even if such action is not necessarily rational. This is especially persuasive whenever we have conflicting information or weak opinions – we tend to look to others for suggestions.
In an interview with a Hong Kong resident by RFA, one comment provided by the interviewee best illustrate this behavioural factor: “Whenever I see somebody standing in line, I go to stand in line too”. In the absence of public assurance, the media coverage of panic buying and photos of empty shelves have only heightened people’s concerns about the situation. The consequence is that people choose the follow the crowd, which in turn creates more panic buying.
The lack of assurance from the Hong Kong government has also motivated the panic buying of toilet paper. This happened due to the distrust and disappointment that has arisen not only from the social protests of 2019, but also the government’s handling of the viral outbreak. Most criticisms from the government’s handling have stemmed from the government failing to source sufficient masks, closing borders with China and enacting price control on the sale of surgical masks.
This distrust has played a negative effect on assuring the public on the supply of toilet paper. Although the government did issue a statement debunking toilet paper rumours and misinformation soon after, it did not sufficiently calm the public. Without enough trust towards authorities, people are resorted to making personal judgements on the probability of the supply of toilet paper. Therefore, it is natural for people to want to overprepare in case of an unexpected shortage.
Uncertainty breeds anxiety. With the number of confirmed coronavirus cases rising around the world, we are witnessing this panic from all over the world – from shoppers in Australia fighting over toilet paper  to people lining up outside Costco in the United States to purchase toilet paper and other household items. There is a difference between adequate buying and excessive buying. This reminds me of a Cantonese phrase that I quite like – “Stop for a moment, think for a moment” (停一停, 諗一諗).
 Jasmine, S. (2020) Coronavirus: Rice, toilet paper and dried goods fly off shelves as rumours spark panic buying in Hong Kong. South Morning China Post. Retrieved from https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/3049237/coronavirus-rice-toilet-paper-and-dried-goods-fly
 Ho-him, C. (2020) Two arrested after armed gang makes run for toilet rolls in HK$1,600 heist as coronavirus panic shows no signs of easing. South Morning China Post. Retrieved from https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/law-and-crime/article/3050907/armed-gang-steals-hk1000-toilet-paper-coronavirus
 Bryan, L. (2020). Amid the coronavirus outbreak, people are flocking to supermarkets worldwide – but are they simply preparing, or irrationally panicking. BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200304-coronavirus-covid-19-update-why-people-are-stockpiling
 Amy, M. (2014). Study shows the power of social influence: 5 ways to avoid the herd. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/07/25/study-shows-the-power-of-social-influence-5-ways-to-avoid-the-herd-mentality/#3b716e486e4e
 Tsi-tsi, L., Siu-yin, T. (2020). Hong Kong Rice, Toilet Paper Shortages Sparked by Unverified information. RFA. Retrieved from https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/shortages-02202020115500.html
 Guardian Staff and agencies. (2020). ‘It isn’t Mad Max’: women charged after fight over toilet paper in Sydney. Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/mar/07/it-isnt-mad-max-police-warning-after-shoppers-brawl-over-toilet-paper-in-sydney
 Maxine, S. (2020). Anxious shoppers wait in line for hours outside of stores to stockpile water, toilet paper and cleaning supplies as coronavirus panic buying continues across the country. Daily Mail. Retrieved from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8086817/Anxious-shoppers-line-stores-stockpile-water-toilet-paper.html
Photo by Studio Incendo.
The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.