96,000 Aussie Deaths? Not all toilet paper comes in rolls

APAC News Daily Telegraph headline reporing Prof Warwick McKibbin estimate of 96,000 COVID-19 deaths in Australia

Toilet paper panic buying. An irrational response to an irrational fear, fueled by an irresponsible media

5 March 2020 | Marcus Reubenstein

If it wasn’t against the backdrop of a global health crisis, you could almost laugh it off. There’s been a COVID-19 run on toilet paper in Australia’s major capital cities.

It’s a phenomenon ridiculed as baseless panic by mainstream media – the same media that carried reports suggesting 96,000 Australians are doomed to a premature death thanks to COVID-19.  

The glaring problem with the 96,000 deaths prediction is that it’s based on assumptions even its authors say are “highly uncertain.”

Analysis of that “highly uncertain” number appears below.

Source of the toilet paper outbreak

Supermarket shelves have been cleared of toilet paper in response to a virus which attacks the respiratory system, not in any way associated with the bodily function for which toilet paper is normally associated.

It appears as though the epicentre of this panic buying epidemic can be traced back to social media and its willing accomplice the mainstream media.

A handful of images of supermarket shelves with dwindling supplies of toilet paper began to appear on Twitter over the weekend. These posts coincided with the first reported COVID-19 death in Australia, an elderly man in Perth who’d been a passenger on the ill-fated Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.

On March 1, news website Perth Now responsibly dismissed the social media posts as spreading unfounded rumours. In a responsible piece of journalism the website contacted an expert, in this case a retail industry analyst, to quash the rumours.

Thanks to highly infectious social media, those unfounded panic buying rumours soon became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

People were racing off to supermarkets snapping photos of toilet paper depleted shelves and posting on social media. No doubt aided by the fact that it was a weekend when many people have too much time on their hands.

Quilton toilet paper package on supermarket shelf during coronavirus panic buying rush in Australia
Waiting to be snapped up, the last toilet rolls in an a Melbourne supermarket

By Monday the story had been lifted from social media, dropped onto major news websites and the panic was in full swing.

That morning APAC News spoke to a marketing executive at one of Australia’s biggest supermarket chains who said there was no run on its stores over the weekend but, thanks to social media, “we are preparing for one right now!”

How rational is hoarding toilet paper?

There are various explanations for what is irrational panic buying – and it is clearly irrational because toilet paper in no way remedies any of the effects of COVID-19.

One explanation comes from Canadian academic, Professor Steven Taylor, author of The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak. He told Canada’s national broadcaster, CBC, “Someone will post images on Instagram or on social media of overstuffed shopping carts and empty shelves in department stores.”

“That’s going to go viral and that’s going to create the illusion of urgency and scarcity, and that’s going to ramp up the panic buying.”

Professor Steven Taylor, author

“Nobody’s posting images of calm shoppers and full department stores or supermarkets. When you look at these images, realise that this is not a statement of the way things really are.”

Why this is not funny

Thankfully a sizeable part of Australia’s population has dismissed this panic buying as absurd and irrational, but it began somewhere on social media and the flames were then fanned by major media outlets.

This was panic and irrational behaviour, nonetheless it caught hold of a significant part of the population.

If you wind back the social media and mainstream news headline clock by three or four weeks, there were equally panicked, irrational and racists posts aimed at Chinese people.

Many western commentators and journalists dismissed these anti-Chinese posts, or headlines making light of China and Chinese people, as not causing any real harm.

But offensive posts that trivialise the Chinese and COVID-19 did (and continue to) cause harm, they fuel panic, fear and then very quickly racism. In much the same way a few harmless toilet paper posts on Twitter cause fear and panic.

The panic inducing headlines go on

As noted above Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reports that toilet paper hoarding Australians have, “lost all sense of reality in toilet paper madness.”

Yet the front page of the newspaper (see above) also carried a “dire warning” that “96,000 AUSSIES COULD DIE FROM VIRUS.”

96,000 possible Australian deaths is a figure calculated by Professor Warwick McKibbin – not a scientist but an economist and former board member of Australia’s Reserve Bank. With fellow academic, Roshen Fernando, he authored a paper entitled, The Global Macroeconomic Impacts of COVID-19: Seven Scenarios Together.

The authors qualified their report by including this sentence: “At the time of writing this paper, the probability of any of these scenarios and the range of plausible alternatives are highly uncertain.”

Yet this number was reported, out of context, across numerous media outlets, including news.com.au, Daily Mail and the Australian Financial Review – which carried the report without ever challenging the numbers.

Host of the 7 Network’s Sunrise program, David Koch did challenge those numbers on-air calling them a “crock”.

Uncertain and unsourced estimates

The fact is, Professor McKibbin’s estimates are purely his, and his co-author’s, assumptions. Numbers not based on science, reports from the World Health Organization or any government health authority.

It is a seemingly arbitrary number that was fabricated in order to justify his modelling as to the potential global economic impact of COVID-19.

And this is not the first time Professor McKibbin has produced a paper attempting to quantify the economic impact of a global pandemic. In 2003 he wrote a similar paper on the impact of SARS and in 2006 another paper responding to the H5N1 Avian Flu.

In that paper he made another bold ‘worst case scenario’ prediction of 214,200 Australians perishing in 2006, swept away as part of a global pandemic.

McKibbin’s 2006 doomsday scenario of more than 200,000 deaths did not eventuate. The actual number of influenza deaths, reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, was 2,715.

McKibbin got it very wrong 14 years ago and rather than question his current assumptions they were passed off, unchallenged as considered expert opinion.

There are facts and there are assumptions.

The fact is the mainstream media is ridiculing a toilet paper panic which it, in part, helped create. On the other hand, some outlets are peddling an even greater panic inducing scenario of nearly 100,000 Australians being doomed to a COVID-19 death.

It is sloppy journalism, with no fact checking, in the midst of a global pandemic. Simply irresponsible.