Hoarding toilet paper: The mystery of such panic buying explained

Singapore's dense, close-knit networks make people more prone to believe their contacts and take up mass behaviours, like buying toilet paper for no apparent reason, just because your WhatsApp chatmates are doing so

Last Friday, just as supermarket shelves began being emptied of rice, instant noodles and toilet paper, our social media accounts started filling up with images of trolleys heaped with those very items. These displays of panic buying soon dominated social media chatter on closed platforms, such as WhatsApp chat groups, as well as more open platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Photographs of long lines of shoppers paying for mountains of products went viral quickly, along with memes and jokes ridiculing the selfish hoarding behaviour.

What was to account for this descent into seemingly senseless and frantic purchasing? News reports suggest that a collective buying frenzy seemed to seize people across the island after the coronavirus alert level was raised to Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) orange. But was that the only trigger?

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2020, with the headline 'Hoarding toilet paper: The mystery of such panic buying explained'. Print Edition | Subscribe