Fake News: How People Foolishly Rushed to Buy Toilet Paper

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  • Interesting developments have been taking place ever since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools across Japan were going to close from a long period of time starting Monday, March 2, as a way to try to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

    by Martin Danker

    The measure came as Abe faced criticism due to what many considered to be inaction after it was reported that the coronavirus had been spreading across Wuhan and China. During that crucial time, which coincided with the Chinese New Year, the Japanese government chose to issue partial transportation bans; and thus, only travelers from Wuhan and the Hubei Province were blocked. However, the virus had already reached cities like Shanghai and Beijing, guaranteeing its transmission across Japan during China’s most important holiday break.

    Unfortunately for Abe, his quick decision to close schools was met with mixed feelings as parents wondered how exactly they were going to be able to work while having their kids at home. Working mothers in particular felt that the measure had not factored them, and that the decision showed how old fashioned politicians forget that women are also part of the workforce and have careers.

    Because of this, daycare facilities were allowed to remain open. Abe’s decision to close schools also worked as a mere suggestion for private schools, some of which decided to continue having classes. As a result, the measures seem to be counter effective since some students are still going to school, other teenagers are gathering in crowded places since they don’t have anything else to do, and trains continue to be packed because multiple companies refuse to allow their employees to telework.

    Adding to the mess is the mass public panic that the coronavirus and the new governmental measures have triggered. Back when COVID-19 still had no name and when the World Health Organization had not declared it a public health emergency, Japanese were already hoarding surgical masks to the point that it was impossible to get them at any convenience store in urban areas. There were even cases of masks selling for exorbitant, prompting the Japanese government to intervene and ask for online auctions to stop.

    And now, hordes of people have been rushing to supermarkets to purchase other products: toilet paper and tissues.

    This is the single, most bizarre effect of Abe’s announcement. As it turns out, false reports led people to believe that there was going to be a scarcity of toilet paper, tissues, and other paper products since factories were going to increase production of face masks. Naturally, or rather disappointingly, people believed the rumors and stores started running out of toilet paper and tissues. Mind you that these are products people need on a daily basis, and yet, people were hoarding them in fear of the non-existent scarcity.

    The major problem is that, despite there being no scarcity, when stores sell out of products, consumers have to wait until the next day when more packages arrive. The luxury of waiting for another day and having to line up before the store opens (since products were selling out fast) is something the elderly and other people can’t afford.

    The people who willfully ate and digested the false rumors created a ripple effect where other shoppers, witnessing how people were rushing to buy toilet paper and tissues, joined in without knowing exactly what was going on but assuming that they had to follow suit.

    This is something that is not new to Japan, since the oil crisis of 1973 had the exact same results. That is, masses headed to supermarkets to purchase toilet paper and tissues believing that they were going to become scarce.

    However, unlike that shopping panic from 47 years ago, the lies that fueled the events of 2020 were able to spread far more quickly thanks to social media. Platforms like Twitter allowed people to receive the false rumors very easily, and since people tend to ignore that confirming that the source of information they are receiving is reliable, they ended up treating the lies as facts despite the lack of logic behind them.

    That is perhaps one of the scariest results of social media and what we are saying with this coronavirus outbreak. In recent years, we have become aware of how people spread and consumed misinformation online, creating problems like the spread of anti-vaxxers, which in turn brought back viruses in the United States that had already been eradicated. What’s more, the spread of misinformation online has also affected elections across countries. Events like these went to show just how terrible the effects of social media could be.

    When it comes to COVID-19, lies have also been spread across social media. Some of the lies i people in Western countries started to receive about the virus included that China had created the disease, that people in China were eating bat soup and that’s why the disease started to spread, that drinking vinegar was a great way to keep one’s body ready to fight the virus, and that Japanese doctors were recommending people to constantly drink water since our stomachs would end up digesting the virus.

    And as coronavirus continues to spread, the trend of people buying toilet paper, tissues, hand soap, and other products has extended to other countries as well.

    And individuals believed all of it to the point that people on the news, from newscasters to politicians, were actually propagating the lies. While some might find this comical, to me it’s a living nightmare and the sort of horror story that Hollywood should be turning into a movie, but I digress.

    As for Japan, let’s hope that people start to learn the importance of checking their sources. In the time being, I will avoid buying tissues for a little bit since I don’t want anyone to believe I was also fooled into believing that there was going to be a shortage of paper products. Fortunately, I don’t have allergies as of yet, so the tissue boxes I have at home are more than enough to last me until the “toilet paper and tissues crisis” sees its well-deserved and rightful death.

    *Featured Image by ishikiri_yamasaki (糀料理やまさき) on Instagram
    : ishikiri_yamasaki/