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Virus, Misinformation, and Toilet Paper

A few days ago, despite the virus’s craziness, restrictions, and misinformation, Wendy and I were in the grocery store looking for some dinner ingredients. We were looking forward to making some delicious nabe —if you don’t know what it is, look it up.

I found myself browsing the place aimlessly —as usual. Eventually, I realized one of the aisles was noticeably empty —unusual in a small store on Tokyo’s outskirts. 

It seems people are desperately buying as much toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and paper towels as they can —it seems understandable given the current circumstances.

Later I found myself wondering why a country that has pretty much universally adopted the use of “bide’s” —again, look it up— in virtually every household would be concerned about running out of material to clean their butts.

Then it hit me. Mass hysteria is good for business.


The Current State of Affairs

It is impossible not to be aware of the current epidemic happening all over the world. At the time of writing, pretty much all continents, excluding Antarctica, have reported infection of the COVID19 (novel Coronavirus). Most of these countries also have deaths. It’s all over the news.

As a species, we face a challenge that could very well take down most of the elderly and susceptible. As a society, we already see significant changes in travel, events, and business. Companies might be forced to make remote work more widespread earlier than expected. The cruise industry might go bankrupt and disappear. 

The repercussions of the actions taken by industries and governments, for better or worse, will be long-lasting. Our way of living might be disturbed.

People are concerned about the prospect of facing a disease most experts agree we don’t know enough about yet. 

The uncertainty and lack of unified concise action by governments and the institutions we should trust are pushing people to look for answers and guidance in the wrong places. 

Enter social media and the machine of misinformation, interests, and bias.

Viral Misinformation

You have likely had a friend sharing an article with inflammatory hyperbolic rhetoric and baseless conclusions. These articles usually have dubious information about the outbreak’s origin or about the people and governments with something to gain.

Nothing new. People share crap all the time. Posts on Facebook —delete your account if you haven’t yet—, Tweets, articles on sketchy sites. Hopefully, you follow the protocol of ignoring, blocking, deleting.


People want quick solutions and straightforward answers to their problems and fears. 

“Why was I fired? Well, obviously, because my boss hates me, she has a vendetta against men. Also, she is part of a political agenda that wants to domesticate men and make frogs gay. It has absolutely nothing to do with my poor output.”

Pointing the finger and letting the worst of our instincts take over is very common in situations of uncertainty. People have learned how to hijack these flaws to make a quick buck. 

Misinformation spreads quickly and unpredictably —much like a virus. Its impact can be catastrophic for a population already dealing with a crisis.

Who Stands to Win?

While most industries are being brought to a halt by combining preventive actions and emergency policies being taken, some others stand to benefit from the panic and confusion generated in our heavily connected 21st-century world.

Consider this scenario.

Bill goes to the grocery store to look for some tomato sauce and pasta to make some delicious spaghetti for dinner, among other things. He then notices that the mouthwash aisle seems a bit low in supply and starts wondering why. 

Suddenly, Bill remembers reading a post his cousin shared stating that most infections happen when your facial orifices come in contact with your hands after touching a surface that another person’s mucose fluids have reached —gross. 

A few leaps of assumptions later, Bill concludes that others have figured out some way to protect themselves by having clean breath. All by connecting dots that are not there. 

Bill then proceeds to be as loud as possible on all his social media accounts about it. Announcing that mouthwash is running out because it’s a miraculous cure and your mother, daughter, and dog will die. Unless, of course, you run and grab as many as you can carry. 

After a little while, his tweet goes viral, and boom, profit for the mouthwash company and despair for everyone else.

Just a Scenario

In the end, this is just a hypothetical scenario. Whether some people purposely started the rumors about toilet paper shortage to create a high demand that they can take advantage of by reselling the stock they preemptively acquired is unknown. 

However, the fact that people are taking advantage of the ignorance and desperation of a population feeling scared and neglected by its institutions leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.

Unfortunately, greed is not where the issues end.

There are reports of people being attacked in multiple countries, verbally and physically. Scared people are shunning Asian people away and saying things out of ignorance and fear. Some others are resorting to now ancient racist stereotypes and twisting them to justify their xenophobic attacks.

Dodge Misinformation

As a rule of thumb, avoid taking the first headline you read at face value.

Take a second to read at least the first few paragraphs of any article and look for other sites or sources to validate the information. If it’s true, then more than one or two sites have it published.

Take everything with a grain of salt and be wary of any hyperbolic statement from someone shouting at people.

It is still too early to make a proper assessment of the repercussions this unprecedented event will have. Experts are scrambling to figure out any mitigating actions that governments can take to reduce the damage.

Many countries are reacting in many different ways. Only after the dust has settled will we learn what worked and how to prevent this from happening again.

For now, chill out, reduce unnecessary exposure and risks. Clean your hands for 20 seconds at least. Don’t buy toilet paper you don’t need. Try not to touch your face and maybe reschedule your visit to your grandparents’ place.

See you in the next post.

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