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Pandemic Panic: The Infectious Fear of the Novel Coronavirus

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  • Tip Bones

“I have a large bottle of hand sanitizer, a 50 count box of face masks, and 20 rolls of toilet paper,” a popular meme reads, “Looking to trade for a four bedroom house.”

At any other time, this would leave people scratching their heads, and the meme unshared. But memes like this are just a viral as the paralyzing fear that has engulfed shoppers across the United States. Today, I made my regular shopping trip, and was surprised to find not a single bottle of hand soap, and absolutely no hand sanitizer. Even the thinnest single ply toilet paper (you know, the kind that dissolves in a gentle breeze) was completely sold out. “I’m so sorry,” said one employee when I approached, tears in her eyes, “We won’t have any more until the fourteenth. I’m really sorry—there’s nothing I can do.”

Putting aside the obviously traumatized store employee for just a moment, we have a serious problem. The disease we’re afraid of is new, but panic buying isn’t. It’s pretty common, according to numerous international reports, for consumers to purchase ‘survival’ items in bulk during a health crisis. I’m happy to see people suddenly enthusiastic about hand washing (were they not before?), but… toilet paper?

One explanation is even somewhat logical: what if the country closes? What if we’re all quarantined in our homes, and can’t go to a store to buy basic necessities? Well, if that were the case, I believe that toilet paper, masks, and hygiene supplies wouldn’t be the only things flying off the shelves. A survivalist with any experience would be stocking up on MREs, or at least the components for basic survival meals. I noticed in my trip to the store that the giant bags of rice were still stocked, the jerky shelves were full, and the canned fruit, vegetables, and beans seemed to have very few cans missing.

So we’re not survivalists. We’re scared.

There’s so much unclear direction from official sources, and misdirection from unofficial ones, that facing a novel coronavirus is harrowing. We just don’t know enough about the virus to know exactly how to prepare. So, not wanting to be underprepared, we double down on our panic buying. Seeing others buy supplies in bulk inspires us to do the same; what if we’re the only ones left without toilet paper?

I studied English, not medicine or psychology, but here’s my amateur advice: wash your hands, stay away from sick people, stay away from people if you’re sick, see a doctor immediately if you think you’re infected, and try to stay calm. We’ll get through this, folks.