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What were we thinking? A look back at the toilet paper shortage of 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic (shortened from "COrona VIrus Disease, 2019") has caused so much disruption and upheaval to our daily lives. All around the world, people have had to make considerable changes to adapt to the shelter-in-place strictures and other mandates placed on us by health and governmental agencies. Although the pandemic is ongoing, we seem to have turned a corner.

Looking back at the "Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020," a lot of people are still baffled. What caused it? "Many [attributed] the shortage to disruptions in the supply chain. But," asserts Andrew Moore of NC State University, "[it was] actually a result of panic-buying." Which then begs the question, what was going on in people's minds to fuel the panic behind the notoriously empty shelves? Obviously, they were worried that the supply chain would be disrupted and that they would be left without basic necessities like hand sanitizer, toilet paper and bottled water.

It's easy to scorn as silly and greedy those we've all seen in viral images stocking up on toilet paper, breakfast cereal and cleaning products, but the emotions underlying this behavior are at least somewhat familiar those of us who came through those months of uncertainty. Ironically, panic buying can break the very supply chains that are perceived to be imperiled by crises such as pandemics, making the gloomy predictions a reality.

Of course, nothing about this pandemic has been predictable or certain. There actually was a sharp decline in the sale of industrial toilet paper, as people sheltered in place and therefore did not use public restrooms (which generally employ the use of industrial paper). As most people worked from home and generally did not leave their residences, their consumption of ordinary household toilet paper increased by about 40 percent. That, coupled with the panic buying that occurred simultaneously, naturally exacerbated the problem.

The result of these (and probably many more) factors was the bare and gutted shelves of supplies we had previously taken for granted.