FILE - In this March 3, 2020 file photo, empty shelves for disinfectant wipes wait for restocking, as concerns grow around COVID-19, in New York. Legions of nervous hoarders are stocking up on canned goods, frozen dinners, toilet paper, and cleaning products. Such hoarding that’s expected to last for weeks has created big challenges for discounters and grocery stores as well as food delivery services. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

COLUMN: Buying toilet paper in a time of panic

The response to the coronavirus outbreak is eerily similar to a number of previous panics

This past weekend, with the springtime change, we were supposed to set our clocks ahead one hour.

But right now I’m wondering if something went wrong and instead we’ve turned back the calendar by a couple of decades.

The reason is the response to the coronavirus outbreak, which is eerily similar to a number of previous panics.

Coronavirus, or COVID-19, was first observed in China in December. Since that time, more than 100,000 people around the world have been diagnosed, and well over 3,000 people have died.

This is a serious matter, and since it is quite new, there is still much we do not know about this virus or how to control it.

Very few of these cases have been in B.C., or anywhere in Canada for that matter. But some are worried they may be quarantined because of this virus. In preparation, they have been stocking up on toilet paper, bottled water and non-perishable food items.

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There are pictures from stores in the Okanagan Valley and beyond where the toilet paper shelves have been cleared. And there have been cases of people offering to sell single rolls for huge sums of money.

Here in Summerland, at least one store is restricting the amount of toilet paper a customer may purchase.

There is something to be said for being prepared in case of a quarantine, but it’s probably more important to make sure to have a supply of medications and to have food items than to stockpile toilet paper.

While COVID-19 is new, the response is not.

Consider the Y2K panic in late 1999.

At that time, there were concerns that the computer technology of the day would crash when the year switched from 1999 to 2000, resulting in massive system failures which would shut down all important services.

The Y2K panic had people stocking up on non-perishable foods, bottled water and extra household goods as a way of preparing for the worst.

In hindsight, the response seems extreme, but at the time, the fear was real.

Or consider the early 1980s, when HIV/AIDS was beginning to emerge.

At that time, little was known about this disease, and as a result, there was a degree of panic.

There were fears that AIDS could be spread by kissing, by sharing a glass or by sitting on a toilet seat an infected person had used. Some suggested the disease could be spread by mosquito bites.

Today, much of the panic is gone, but in the early years of AIDS, fears about this disease also led to stigma and fear of people who were gay or lesbian.

And before AIDS, there was a panicked response to a possible nuclear war.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war had some constructing basement fallout shelters.

In the early 1960s, Canada’s federal government even had a loan program in place to assist those who wanted to construct fallout shelters for their families. The federal government also had other information available on how to prepare for a nuclear attack.

Today, this response seems strange as the widespread devastation from a nuclear war would have been far worse than the protection offered by a shelter.

There are other examples of panics over the years, including West Nile virus and SARS in the early 2000s, swine flu in 2009, ebola in 2014 and the zika virus in 2016.

Today, it makes sense to keep up with the news about COVID-19 as more information is made available. And there are precautions to reduce one’s risk.

In the coming days, weeks and months, we will learn more about this disease and the best ways to be prepared.

Whatever happens, a reasoned, measured response makes a lot more sense than making a mad dash to the store to stockpile toilet paper.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

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