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Shoppers pass a row of empty shelving where toilet paper is usually stacked, as the number of coronavirus cases grows worldwide, at a Costco store in Toronto, Ontario, Canada March 13, 2020.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

People have spent weeks deriding their fellow citizens’ buying of toilet paper. The pictures mocking empty store shelves are a constant on social media feeds. People scoff at the idea that some others believe toilet paper has anything to do with COVID-19, a respiratory disease.

For what we now know was a gloriously aimless period, when many were unsure of the seriousness of coronavirus – say, a few days ago – people felt awkward going on even a regular run for TP, lest they be judged by their fellow shoppers as a survivalist or hoarder.

Hoarding is despicable, and especially so in the midst of a global pandemic that threatens lives, social stability and the economy. News reports of stores being sold out of basic cold and flu medications are worrying. Stores will need to implement more limits on certain key products to keep some online hustlers-cum-vultures from swooping in. “Don’t be a jerk” needs to be a guiding mantra.

‘I don’t see it as selfish.’ Readers debate: Is hoarding despicable?

What is physical distancing?

Physical distancing means minimizing human interactions, not eliminating them completely, like you would do in quarantine.

That means:

  • closing down schools (from daycares through to universities) temporarily,
  • restricting access to hospitals and nursing homes
  • cancelling mass gatherings like sporting events
  • curtailing all non-essential travel and urging companies to have their employees work at home.

But people can move about, go out and buy groceries and go to work if they have essential jobs, like nurses, power plant workers and grocery store clerks. In some countries, like Italy, they limit the number of customers in a store to 10 at a time. In South Korea, they have special daycare facilities for essential workers, and have limited class size to 10. There are some grey areas, such as people who ask if they can hang out with their neighbours if they sit apart.

Are you worried about friends or family who are not taking distancing seriously? To make sure they stay safe and keep their distance, here’s how to gently coax them to do the right thing.

Read the rules in your province with our quick guide to what’s allowed and open, or closed and banned.

But to me, the desire to stock up on some extra 24-roll packages of TP has been largely misjudged. It is mostly an act of wanting to be prepared for an unknown. It’s an attempt by people at exerting some control over a situation increasingly out of control. And a bit extra of everything to be ready for two weeks or more at home isn’t a bad or selfish thing – a reasonable level of preparation is actually helpful for society.

Increasingly, “flattening the curve” has become the laser-like focus of policy-makers and health-care systems. Shutting down travel, big conferences and cruise ships is about slowing the inevitable spread of the virus. At its core, flattening the curve is a survival measure for our health-care systems, which are at risk of being overwhelmed by a sudden, huge spike in the number of COVID-19 patients who need mechanical ventilators, supplemental oxygen and intensive care.

One of the first mentions I saw of “flattening the curve” in relation to coronavirus was a prescient article from writer and academic Zeynep Tufekci. In a well-laid-out argument for getting prepared to stay at home, she felt compelled to defend why stocking up on some food, medicines, board games and other supplies is actually a good idea.

“It seems to me that some people may be holding back from preparing because of their understandable dislike of associating such preparation with doomsday or ‘prepper’ subcultures,” Dr. Tufekci wrote.

“Many doomsday scenarios advise extensive preparation for increasingly outlandish scenarios, and this may seem daunting and pointless (and it is). Others may not feel like contributing to a panic or appearing to be selfish.”

That was more than two weeks ago, and the thinking around the seriousness of coronavirus in North America has rapidly changed since then. However, societal hesitancy to make provisions still exists, for some. But in her article, Dr. Tufekci goes on to say that getting your own house in order is actually good for society.

“Preparing for the almost-inevitable global spread of this [disease], now dubbed COVID-19, is one of the most pro-social, altruistic things you can do in response to potential disruptions of this kind.”

There is no doubt that part of the reason people lined up for toilet paper was the startling visuals of empty store shelves. Some were likely worried they would be left behind in a race to the till. And it’s not like toilet paper is a key tool for fighting coronavirus, or is more indispensable than food.

But buying extra toilet paper is similar to stocking up on cleaning supplies – it will help with hygiene. Toilet paper doesn’t go bad, and having some extra in the house might allow you to avoid a run to the store as social distancing takes full effect.

In general, being prepared to stay home might mean that if you get the disease but have mild symptoms, you might not have to go to a grocery store as early, or as often, afterwards. It might mean you reduce your risk of coming in contact with the elderly or other at-risk groups. It means you might be able to focus on caregiving, or delivering supplies to a family member, friend or neighbour who didn’t or wasn’t able to stock up.

In the weeks and months ahead, there could be disruptions in food and other supply chains that usually provide us with pretty much anything we want to buy, at almost any time.

Things are moving fast, and they are going to get worse before they get better. Being good to one another becomes paramount. And being prepared individually, in a measured way, is part of that. It’s nothing to scoff at.

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