I started writing this article on the 16th of March. Then the Coronavirus had already become threat number one for almost the entire world. The virus had affected the lives of almost 170 000 people globally and taken those of 6 500 of them.
Just over a week later, the numbers are drastically different.
This is one of the most devastating and widespread outbreaks that humanity has seen in a while. Even though its death rate can be considered lower, compared to those of Ebola, for example, its fast spreadability and lack of understanding have turned numerous countries in prisons for their citizens, driven by fear.
For the first time in recent years, the line between “us” and “them” has been completely breached. It is no longer Africa, Asia, Europe or America’s problem – something out of our reach and out of our minds. It is a global-scale problem that concerns us all. The coronavirus prefers no specific gender, race or ethnicity. It doesn’t care about your income or your Instagram followers. Moreover, it doesn’t go away if you share a photo. Sadly.
So, why are you reading this and what does this blog post have to do with toilet paper?
It hit all international news that due to the outbreak, people from all nations are attacking the stores and are hoarding enormous quantities of certain products. People were stashing on canned goods, frozen food, water, flour and yeast. (True story, there was a guy in Northern Denmark, who bought 100 yeast packages in a day.)
Still, nothing hit the internet as much as the empty toilet paper shelves. Memes about the precious wiping tool kept popping left and right. The questions were unsettling: Where is all the toilet paper and why are people hoarding it as if their life depends on it?
So, I decided to equip myself with the power of the internet and investigate the reason behind the toilet paper shortage our society is facing today.
Let’s start from the beginning - the Coronavirus’ spread (through a European’s perspective)
When the first news about the existence of COVID-19 hit the Europeans, people did not react much to them. Count me in, I was the person that saw the news and the thought formed loud and clear in my mind: “There is nothing to worry about, this is happening so far away from us.”.
It may sound ignorant, especially after witnessing the reality we are in currently. Yet, this reaction has its purpose in our existence. Disassociating from the problem in question and dehumanizing the victims to a number signifying the development and spread of the problem, makes it easier for us to cope with and comprehend situations. If the threat is “there”, somewhere far away, it lowers the stress in us.
Think about it this way – if we were shocked and panicked about every problem happening in the world right now, how are we going to manage all this stress? It is impossible to live with such a burden in your mind. Therefore, our consciousness prioritizes the issues by the risk they pose for us. After all, instincts are made to protect us and to help us endure the threats around us.
However, there is a significant flaw in this “instinct” – it sometimes leaves us blindsided for threats. As it happened with COVID-19. There was an issue that no one saw as a threat.
On the other side of the coin, the contrast to apathy is overreaction. This was evident in the panic which we witnessed as soon as the virus entered our reality.
Here, in Denmark, the situation escalated in a matter of hours. From a chill Wednesday with plenty of people out and about at noon to a wild stock-up of supplies in the evening. Complete lockdown of institutions and boarders came just later the same week.
So, what is the reason behind this erratic behaviour? Is this some primal instinct awaken in us and how can we handle it?
How hoarding toilet paper is encoded in our minds
Panic – this type of severe reaction comes through a certain mechanism in our brains. When faced with a threat our mind is at a crossroad with what kind of action can be taken. First, like anything in life, we try to control the threat. Our brains love control – it makes everything easy and safe. So, we always aim at it.
However, in the case of the Coronavirus, it is not us individually that can do something proactive to eradicate the disease. We can stay home to prevent the spread, yet this is not eliminating the threat. We have no control over it.
Therefore, we go towards the second type of reaction – trying to cope with the fear itself, rather than the risk itself. This is exactly where the hoarding of toilet paper and resources comes into action. By doing so, we relief the fear we are feeling. We feel safe and secure – locked up at home with all we need to survive.
How to deal with overreaction?
As a witness and part taker in both apathy and panic, I find both reactions extremely harmful. In the stage of disinterest, we could not take the right precautious measures that were needed. On the other hand, when such a strong reaction came to be, after all, it could have caused even more spread and waste of valuable resources.
This is why I believe people need to be aware of their reactions. By studying your emotions and trying to understand them, you are one step closer to dealing with them. Therefore, understanding the psychology behind panic can help you deal with it.
Being calm in these crazy times will help you make the most responsible actions and the balance that is much needed.
I would like to appeal to all of you to be calm, not panicked. To inform yourselves, but not spread misinformation. To follow the advice of your health authorities, and lastly, to stay home. I am sure that there are better days ahead.
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