But was it really crazy? Or was it a rational, if panicked, response from a population rattled by a summer of worrying for our own safety, and doubting the capacity of government to help us? What role does fear and anxiety play in our responses to a pandemic, and can it ever help us? And what does the social response to the crisis so far tell us about who Australians are?
The answer to the rationality or irrationality of the toilet paper rush lies in the truth that many people who rolled their eyes at the stock-piling were engaging in it themselves.
This behaviour was described in 1833 by British economist William Forster Lloyd, and in 1968, it was picked up on by American biologist and philosopher Garrett Hardin, who wrote an article on it called “The Tragedy of the Commons”. It describes the situation where individuals act according to their self interest and deplete a common resource, thereby harming the common good, from which all individuals benefit.
In the 1830s, that common resource was grazing land. Now, it’s the loo roll and pasta aisles at Woolies.
“We are all acting for the benefit of ourselves and in the long run we destroy the resource for everybody,” explains Julie Fitness, a professor of social psychology at Macquarie University, and the president of the Society of Australasian Social Psychologists.
She says loo paper became the locus for people’s anxieties because it is bulky and big, and so it is visually obvious when it is in shortage at the supermarket. This creates “a kind of emotional contagion”.
“Anxiety spreads, and it makes us very insular,” she says. “The amygdala [part of the brain] is going off, saying ‘Do what you can to protect your family’. It makes us irrational and selfish and it’s hard to get a larger view.”
Justin Wolfers, an Australian economist and professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, tweeted last week about the economics of panic buying. He likened the behaviour to a run on banks during a financial crisis. He said the best way to stop the behaviour was to do what governments did during the global financial crisis when they guaranteed bank deposits, and give everyone access to a federal toilet paper reserve.
Wolfers calls the panic buying – which has happened in other countries including Italy, Britain and Hong Kong – a “rational panic”.
“When you are worried others are going to stockpile, the rational response is to beat them there,” Wolfers says. “No one is making a mistake there, it is not a bias. It was the same rationale that brought down the global economy in 2008. It’s wrong to call it crazy. It’s right to call it bad.”
Wolfers says humans often overreact in fear to snippets of bad news. He uses the example of people freaking out over shark attacks even though they’re more likely to die in a car accident driving to the beach.
But the coronavirus is different, he says. “With something that is growing exponentially, what happens today doesn’t tell you a lot about what will happen in a few weeks’ time.”
Anna Wilson, an economist with Frontier Economics, believes Australians have been “primed” by the bushfires to have a particularly anxious response to the virus crisis. “We like to think we’re in control but a lot of decision making is automatic and those decisions are susceptible to bias,” she says.
But that doesn’t make such decision-making irrational. “This automatic decision making happens because your brain wants you to make decisions quickly,” she says. “We don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that we’ve been primed for emergency. It’s too early to tell.”
But sometimes our fear doesn’t work well enough, or fast enough. While most people in Australia continue to go about their business as normal, and there are no mass school or workplace shut-downs, the risk of contagion remains too high, Wolfers argues. “When there are not many cases, the risk associated with going out tomorrow is not high, but the risk to society is very high because you could expose others.”
Economists call this “externality”, where an individual’s behaviour affects others. “There is not a strong enough incentive to take precautionary action. The lives at risk are not their own,” says Wolfers.
Chief executive of the Grattan Institute John Daley echoed those comments when he argued this week the Australian government should either close the borders or shut down large amounts of community activity. “All of the choices from here are going to cause a lot of damage to somebody, so we are really in the world of trying to find the least worst option,” he said.
When the government was seen as mismanaging its response to the bushfires emergency, the public backlash was swift and strong. Will we see the same this time if the government falters in its management of this contagion?
Professor Ian McAllister of the Australian National University thinks not, because experts, not politicians, are leading the response to the virus crisis.
McAllister is the co-director of the Australian Election Study, a national study of political opinion conducted after every election since 1987. Last year’s survey found just 25 per cent of respondents believed people in government could be trusted – the lowest level of trust since the survey began.
But McAllister says public trust in experts such as medical professionals, universities and the public service remains strong. “We are fairly utilitarian in Australia and prepared to put up with government interventions for the greater good. Classic Benthamism,” he says, a reference to 18th century Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham.
But, says McAllister, “you’ve got one crisis following on from another”, with the virus outbreak coming hot on the heels of the bushfire summer. “You’re sort of getting into unchartered territory in terms of public opinion.”
Frank Snowden, a professor emeritus of history and the history of medicine at Yale University, is the author of a 2019 book called Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. Speaking to US magazine The New Yorker last week, he said that “epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are”.
“They show the moral relationships that we have towards each other as people, and we’re seeing that today.”
This week, Australia saw affray charges laid over a toilet paper fracas in a supermarket, a viral video of a man on a Sydney train arguing with a fellow commuter for coughing “at” him, and even reports of toilet paper profiteering. What does this say about our social fabric in fearful times?
Julie Fitness says Australians’ response to the bushfires crisis was highly empathic, with an outpouring of community support, both financial and emotional. But fear impedes empathy, she says. “When we are anxious or fearful it can be hard to rustle up empathy. That’s why we need leadership.”
According to Snowden, the ability of societies to pull together and work cooperatively in an organised way is crucial to weathering pandemics well. The contagion travels along society’s fault lines and quickly shows where the cracks are.
If, or when, Australians practise widespread social isolation, how will we cope?
In January the Australian Psychological Society published advice for maintaining good mental health during the coronavirus crisis, and recommended not watching too much news if you’re anxious, but instead listening to the advice of experts.
Some are relishing the opportunity home-quarantine presents for what the Scandinavians call hygge, the feeling of wellbeing and comfort that comes from being in a snug, convivial atmosphere. This week The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age published a list of recipes of delicious meals to cook while on lock-down, and also a piece by foodie Jill Dupleix on the gourmet essentials for stockpiling.
Other media outlets have published lists of books to read while isolated.
Apart from the comforts of literature in a pandemic, it’s worth noting that pandemics can produce great literature. In 19th century Europe, tuberculosis was considered the disease of poets and artists, the “beautiful people” (this despite it being a deeply ugly disease).
Love in the Time of Cholera, the 1985 novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is set against the backdrop of a cholera epidemic, but the true “plague novel” is the Italian classic The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni, first published in 1827. It is set in Italy during the bubonic plague of 1629-1631, which claimed 25 per cent of the population. The composer Giuseppe Verdi called the book “a gift to humanity”.
One for the social isolation reading list, perhaps.
Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards