It has become emblematic of the countries hit by the coronavirus: pictures of empty toilet paper shelves, of people mounting rolls into their shopping carts or walking the streets with two packs under each arm.
All reassuring words from government officials and the industry alike, pointing out that there's no shortage of hygienic white paper and that citizens can and, in fact, should stop buying rolls by the dozens, seem to be to no avail. Many Swedes continue to stock up, leaving the supermarket shelves empty by midday.
Swedish press officer Henrik Sjöström at Essity, the world's largest producer of hygienic and health products, including toilet paper, tweeted about his local Ica grocery store: “Not a single shelf is empty in our Ica, except for toilet paper. Do people think Covid-19 is some bowel disease?”
Inte en enda hylla står tom på vår Ica, förutom för toapapper. Tror folk att covid-19 är en magsjukdom?? pic.twitter.com/w5876IDwiZ
— Henrik Sjöström ? (@henriksjos) March 12, 2020
A small comfort, perhaps, that Sweden is by no means the only country whose citizens are flocking to the toilet roll shelves. There's a worldwide run on toilet paper. Big supermarket chains in several countries, among which the UK and the US, have restricted toilet paper buying to two or three packages at a time.
There have also been creative solutions. Australian media outlet NT News, for example, decided to add eight white, unprinted pages to their newspapers, meant for citizens who had run out of toilet paper.
“We are surely witnessing an increase in demand,” Per Lorentz, a press officer at Essity Sweden, told The Local.
Their headquarters are in Stockholm, and Essity has several production centres throughout the country – many more throughout the world. “We are currently producing three million rolls daily for the Swedish market alone,” Lorentz said, which equals about one roll for every three citizens.
Is there a risk they will be running out, any of these days?
“Not at all, we do not experience any shortage. Panic buying is completely unnecessary.”
The toilet paper business must be flourishing, then, amid a suffering economy?
“Well,” noted Lorentz, “it's true that people buy more toilet paper, but they probably won't use more of it than regularly. Whatever they buy now, they won't buy later.”
Remains the question: why toilet paper, of all things hoardable?
Sure, it would be an annoyance to sit in self-isolation and have none. But aren't, say, bags of rice, canned beans and frozen vegetables more essential to getting through times of uncertainty (although according to Swedish authorities there is no immediate risk of Sweden running out of those either) than our hygienic wipes?
Behavioral and consumption experts alike seem to agree that this worldwide roll hoarding is, in fact, irrational and has little to do with actual risk assessments. It rather seems to be the consequence of our instincts to, in times of crisis, stack up on basic necessities.
Psychologist Mary Alvord, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the George Washington University School of Medicine, told magazine Time that there is “comfort in knowing that it's there. We all eat and we all sleep and we all poop. It's a basic need to take care of ourselves.”
Moreover, Alvord noted, we are social creatures who need the larger community to survive. People who are regarded as unclean run the risk of being ostracised. “It's about being clean and presentable and social and not smelling bad.”