Coronavirus-driven stockpiling a natural but unnecessary urge, Calgary psych prof says

Calgarians stocking up on toilet paper is a natural — but unnecessary — response to fear, a psychology professor says.

Alberta Health urges handwashing as top doctor warns of 'new normal'

Sean Semark is the co-owner of Wise Guys Liquor in northeast Calgary. He made a tongue-in-cheek post on social media, making fun of toilet paper hoarding due to coronavirus fears. (Wise Guys Liquor)

Calgarians stocking up on toilet paper is a natural — but unnecessary — response to fear, a psychology professor says.

The novel coronavirus has spread worldwide with more than 100,000 cases globally, and Monday saw the first death from COVID-19 in Canada.

Health professionals are encouraging people to practise good hygiene — regular handwashing, in particular — to prevent infection.

However, many Albertans are looking to grocery store shelves for solutions.

They're buying toilet paper in bulk, and shoppers are taking photos of empty shelves and posting them on social media.

The pictures may be funny and odd, University of Calgary psychology professor John Ellard says, but may spread unnecessary panic.

"The problem at the moment is that the environments that most of us who are half awake are in are saturated with information," Ellard told the Calgary Eyeopener.

John Ellard of the University of Calgary specializes in social psychology. (CBC)

That overwhelming flood of information, he said, is leading people to feel fearful of the virus — and overestimate the risk — while reaching for an irrational solution.

"When Co-op and Costco run out of toilet paper, typically that's not news," he said.

In Alberta, the health ministry has identified seven cases so far, and the risk level is still ranked as "very low."

"We need to start thinking about what our new normal will look like over the coming months," Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said in a statement Monday.

"With no vaccine for this virus likely to be available for a year or more, we need to be vaccine for each other."

'Tongue-in-cheek' toilet paper joke

In northeast Calgary, liquor store co-owner Sean Semark thought he'd have some fun with the toilet paper phenomenon on the weekend.  

He shared his own image, a staged photo of cases of Corona beer with rolls of toilet paper at his store, Wise Guys Liquor.

"Like literally, if you come in and buy a two-four of Corona, I'll give you a roll of toilet paper," Semark said Monday.

"Tongue-in-cheek really is the intention. We're trying to create light humour over such a worldwide situation."

The unusual pairing of tissue and suds garnered attention online, resulting in thousands of retweets and several media interviews. 

Both products have unexpectedly had their profile raised since the outbreak of coronavirus worldwide over the past month. Both are tied to misinformation.

The deadly virus's name is similar to that of Corona beer, a comparison not missed by people on social media. Of course, there is no connection between the two — something the beer company pointed out in a recent statement.

The considerable uncertainty related to the virus leads to emotions overpowering rational thought, Ellard said.

"There's an unavoidable tendency — this is not something we really have any control over — to assume that the risk is greater than it is just because it's so continuously top of mind," Ellard said. "The second part of this has to do with the role of emotion and how we think."

Toilet paper shelves were empty for a time at the Superstore in Shawnessey on Saturday. (Shannon Scott/CBC)

The regular reporting about the coronavirus-related toilet paper shopping sprees is feeding a fear of being left without, he said.

Sharing photos of empty shelves and calling for people to hurry to stores can lead to further, and unnecessary, panic that could in turn lead to actual shortages down the road, he said.

'Stay to the facts'

Coronavirus has been called a global public health emergency by the World Health Organization. Since late January, nearly 4,000 people have died of COVID-19, which is the respiratory illness caused by the virus.

In Alberta, the healthy authority says people have a very low risk of contracting the illness.

As for Semark, although he's selling the "high-end, good quality toilet paper" usually used by staff, he hasn't seen any uptick in Corona sales. He's also urging people to remain calm, and remember to have fun.

"Everyone should stay vigilant, stay safe but don't overwhelm yourself," Semark said. "Stay to the facts."

Symptoms include a cough, fever and extreme tiredness.

The provincial government encourages anyone with symptoms to call 811 to arrange to be tested. More details about how to prepare are available at 19 and at the World Health Organization.


About the Author

Rachel Ward


Rachel Ward is a journalist with the Fifth Estate. You can reach her with questions or story ideas at

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.