5 unexpected effects of coronavirus: Hoarding, scalping, bidets & more

It’s hard to believe that Australia’s most sought-after commodity right now is the humble loo roll. That could just be the tip of the iceberg of our reactions to coronavirus. Will hand sanitiser scalping, dating app health warnings and plunging beer sales become the new normal? We take a look at five unexpected impacts of the coronavirus outbreak.
Toilet rolls and tissues have been stockpiled, leaving bare aisles in Coles and Woolworths.
Shoppers have left aisles usually stocked with toilet rolls and tissues stripped bare. Source: Annabelle Conaghan.

Gone are the days when precious metals were coveted and mined resources kept the country moving – 2020 is toilet paper’s world and we’re just living in it.

The coronavirus pandemic – now officially known as COVID-19 – is continuing to spread globally and has sparked worldwide panic. In Australia, this has resulted in mass-hoarding of emergency supplies, non-perishable items and, somewhat bafflingly, toilet paper.

Coronavirus is popping up in everyone’s news feeds, as it’s a global event which is predicted to have a significant impact on many aspects of everyday life – from where we can travel, to our movements around town, even the economy, which is predicted to slow as a result. At the time of writing, there have been more than 100,000 confirmed cases of the virus around the globe and an entire country – Italy – has put itself into quarantine. The virus has claimed more than 4,000 lives – the majority of those in China, where it originated – with a global mortality rate of 3.4% according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The interest is reflected in the Google Trends search data, which shows a sharp spike for people looking for information about coronavirus (as well as toilet paper).

However, there have been calls to tone down the sensational nature of media reports, to try and prevent further panic. Government and expert commentators say that while it is a big deal and we should take it seriously, there’s no need for the stockpiling of food and goods. Some media has suggested that type of “coronavirus prep” is actually causing more harm than good.

Coronavirus is a respiratory illness that has been described as similar to the seasonal influenza we know all too well. Just like the flu, it may cause symptoms that range from “a mild illness to pneumonia”, with most people likely to experience the former. Almost half of all the people recorded as being infected with the virus have since recovered, the figures show. The most vulnerable people are those whose immune system is compromised or the elderly, and, as there is no vaccine at present for the virus, it’s typically with those people in mind that containment and quarantine measures are put in place by governments. That is the case with Italy, where Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the lockdown measures were for “our dear ones, of our grandparents and of our parents”.

This data visualisation, prepared by Johns Hopkins CSSE, shows the coronavirus outbreak across the world. Source: John Hopkins CSSE

In Australia, there have been 100 confirmed cases of the virus (as of 11am, 10 March, 2020) according to the government. Three people, each older than 70, have died.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said the virus was likely to become a pandemic, and enacted the country’s emergency plan on 27 February in advance of the expected rise in cases. However, he also said people had no need to panic. Of the 100 Australian cases reported, 22 of these cases are reported to have recovered, the Australian Health Department states.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy told ABC radio listeners on 9 March that at this stage, there was no reason for the public to be wearing masks or changing their habits – except, perhaps, their hygiene habits.

“This is a really good opportunity for everyone in the community to practice good personal hygiene. A good chance to focus on handwashing. A good chance – if you’re unwell, stay away from work and keep away from close contacts with people and practice good cough etiquette, and all of those sort of things that we’ve talked about for years. But they can really help in the prevention of transmission of a virus, any virus.”

However, the spread of the virus around the globe has sparked a number of reactions and unforeseen outcomes. Here are a few of the most unexpected:

1. Toilet paper rationing

Who could have predicted the coronavirus pandemic would trigger the ‘Great Toilet Paper Debacle of 2020’? Trending Twitter tags like #toiletpaperemergency and #toiletpaperapocalypse have been accompanied by images of barren aisles, trolleys overflowing with rolls at the checkout and videos of desperate shoppers grabbing at limited stock.

Australians, and many others chiming in around the globe, have placed themselves firmly in one of two camps: the doomsday preppers and the unfazed. Both have been facing off on various social media platforms and in real life, like a modern-day reimagining of the Wild West, complete with reports of tasers blazing.

The huge demand for dunny rolls has resulted in Woolworths, Coles and Aldi having to place a limit on the number of packs of toilet paper per person at the checkout. Both Woolworths and Coles have since released statements assuring customers there’s plenty more to go around, while adding that shoppers should be mindful those who can’t afford to stockpile could miss out.


2. Scalping of survival supplies

Even before Australians’ demand for toilet paper skyrocketed, many grocery stores, pharmacies and hardware stores had been experiencing dwindling supplies of hand sanitiser and P2 safety masks.

P2 masks were in high demand recently due to high levels of air pollution and smoke after the Black Summer bushfires. Many Australians then noticed hand sanitiser started flying off the shelves.

30mL bottle of hand sanitiser $100 on Gumtree
A screenshot of a Gumtree listing for resale hand sanitiser, taken 6 March, 2020. Source: Canstar

Some unscrupulous shoppers and third-party suppliers have stockpiled these items and are currently reselling them at exorbitant prices, sometimes at a markup of almost 2,000% of the recommended retail price. These items include hand sanitisers, face masks, toilet paper, bottles of water and even a combination of the supplies marketed on Gumtree as “Coronavirus survival packs”.

An ad for toilet paper asking for $1000 on Gumtree
A screenshot of a Gumtree listing for resale toilet paper, taken 6 March, 2020. Source: Canstar

This price-gouging is not limited to Australia, and many have called for big marketplace-style platforms, such as Amazon, to take action and put measures in place to prevent price-gouging. In response, Amazon has worked to contain the scalpers and has since removed ‘tens of thousands’ of offers from the site, blocking or removing over 1 million products for dodgy claims or misleading information relating to COVID-19.

Sellers on Gumtree advertising coronavirus survival packs, including toilet paper and hand sanitiser
A screenshot of a Gumtree seller advertising Coronavirus survival packs, taken 6 March, 2020. Source: Canstar

Similarly, Facebook has announced it will monitor advertisements for anything that attempts to profit from the coronavirus outbreak by creating a sense of urgency, such as by implying a limited supply or guaranteeing a cure.

3. Boost in bidet enquiries

For many who missed out on the last roll of toilet paper at their local supermarket, it seems some are  thinking of alternatives. One such option – the bidet – has seen a dramatic boost in interest as coronavirus cases have continued to spread around the world in the last few days.

Australian Bidets managing director Randall Cadby said there has been a 500% increase in traffic to the company’s website in just one week. (A bidet is typically a toilet-like bathroom fixture that washes bodily waste from a user, which means toilet paper is not necessary.)

In fact, Google Trends data shows searches for “bidets” in Australia had risen sharply in the past 30 days.

Similarly, a traditional Filipino hygiene tool known as a tabo has also been a frequent search term in Australia over the past seven days, according to Google Trends. The modern version, made of moulded plastic, is used to scoop water and has many household uses, including as a substitute for toilet paper.


4. Precautions issued from dating apps

A lot has changed since the world last experienced a virus on this scale. The current coronavirus outbreak is the first that’s overlapped with the new-age world of dating apps, like Tinder and Hinge. As the sole purpose of a dating app seemingly flies in the face of the basic coronavirus prevention methods – like social quarantine and avoiding physical contact – a few of these apps have issued their own words of warning.

Industry trailblazer Tinder – arguably the ‘OG’ (pioneer) of the bunch – supplied users with some tips for prioritising their wellbeing, including, frequent hand-washing and use of hand sanitiser, avoiding touching your face and maintaining social distance in public gatherings.

5. Memes about Corona beer

While it may be hard to fathom that people have been associating the outbreak of coronavirus with Corona – the phonetically similar yet totally unrelated Mexican beer, that hasn’t stopped myriad memes frothing up on social media.

The humour was possibly fanned by news organisations picking up on a survey conducted by 5W Public Relations, which found 38% of the 737 Americans surveyed wouldn’t drink Corona beer under any circumstances –  although this wasn’t necessarily due to the coronavirus.

Hitting back against the “news”, Corona’s parent company in the US, Constellation Brands, released a statement saying that sales during February were nearly double what they were this time last year. Similarly, business intelligence firm IRI Worldwide found sales of Corona are actually up 3.1% year on year.

So, what can I do to prevent the spread of coronavirus?

The Health Department states that this virus, as with many infectious diseases, spreads from person-to-person through:

  • close contact with an infectious person
  • contact with droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze
  • touching objects or surfaces (like doorknobs or tables) that have cough or sneeze droplets from an infected person, and then touching your mouth or face

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the department states that “everyone should practise good hygiene”, including:

  • washing your hands often with soap and water
  • using a tissue and cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze
  • avoiding close contact with others, such as touching.

Here are some of the more unusual measures being taken around the world to stop the spread of coronavirus:

  • Hong Kong has warned residents not to kiss their pets, after a pomeranian with an infected owner reportedly tested a ‘weak positive’ for the coronavirus.

  • The Louvre museum in Paris was shut down earlier this month, after a unanimous vote by staff, prompting the museum to introduce extra safety precautions. The protest ended and the doors were opened again on Wednesday after the staff were supplied hand sanitisers.
  • A local Māori iwi (tribe) in Wellington banned the traditional hongi – pressing noses in greeting – at gatherings last week, after a third case of the virus was confirmed in New Zealand.

  • Catholic churches in Perth are removing Holy Water and placing a temporary ban on drinking from the chalice during communion to help stop the spread of virus. Other changes include placing the communion wafer in hand, rather than on the tongue, and forgoing the use of handshakes as a sign of peace.
  • While some doubts still remain over whether the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will actually go ahead, preventative measures have been put in place as some of the preliminary ceremonies, such as the torch-lighting ceremony, torch relay and dress rehearsal begin. Apparently any runners or spectators who are feeling unwell have been asked to sit out of the events, while the dress rehearsal for the torch-lighting ceremony will be closed to spectators.

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Additional reporting: Amanda Horswill

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