Australia’s biggest grocers put strict limits on purchases of toilet paper on Wednesday after a rush of panic buying related to coronavirus fears emptied shelves as the country recorded its third case of local transmission of the disease.
Australia was one of the first countries to take a hard line on tackling the outbreak, imposing border controls on visitors from the epidemic’s epicentre in China a month ago.
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The country has at least 39 cases, four of them involving people who caught the disease despite not having left Australia.
Still, social media has been awash in recent days with photos and video of people stockpiling goods, including sanitising products and staples like rice and eggs.
The run on toilet paper, in particular, has sparked the trending hashtags #toiletpapergate and #toiletpapercrisis on Twitter, along with photos of overloaded shopping trolleys, and calls for calm from baffled officials.
“We are trying to reassure people that removing all of the lavatory paper from the shelves of supermarkets probably isn’t a proportionate or sensible thing to do at this time,” Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy told a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday.
Woolworths Group Ltd, the country’s biggest grocery chain, restricted sales of the essential product to four packs per shopper to help shore up stock levels while suppliers ramp up local production. The local arm of Costco Wholesale Corp limited its bulk-buy packs to one per customer.
Even Prime Minister Scott Morrison has weighed in on a purchasing trend that appears to be at odds with stockpiling of long-lasting food like tinned goods in other countries, telling the public he had been assured by the largest grocers they could meet any spike in demand.
Police confirmed they were called to a supermarket in Sydney to deal with “a disturbance in an aisle”, with local media reporting the authorities had cordoned off the toilet paper shelves as a result.
Other products have also been scooped up by shoppers. Costco has put limits on purchases of milk, eggs, rice and disinfecting and soap products. Coles Group Ltd began posting signs in stores advising shoppers about shortages of hand and laundry sanitiser a few weeks ago.
Coles said it was working with its suppliers and transport partners to improve the availability of popular products, although it did not confirm whether it was also rationing sales of certain items.
“We have increased deliveries from our distribution centres and our teams are working hard to fill the shelves as quickly as possible,” it said in an emailed statement.
German-owned discounter Aldi Inc and US-listed Kimberly-Clark Corp, which makes toilet paper for the Australian market via local subsidiaries, were not immediately available for comment.
Australia’s latest confirmed coronavirus case, a 50-year-old woman, is the third person to have contracted the illness without travelling overseas, stoking fears the virus will spread more quickly through the community.
Officials said the woman worked at a seniors’ care home in New South Wales (NSW) state where two elderly residents at the facility were also tested for the virus. One has been hospitalised while the other, a 95-year old woman, has died.
“Whether or not it was related to coronavirus, we don’t know at this point,” NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard told reporters about the death.
Officials in NSW, the country’s most populous state, were already investigating the case of a 53-year doctor who contracted the virus but had not treated any known infected patients.
Australia has banned arrivals of foreigners who recently travelled through China since February 1. Last week, it extended that ban to people arriving from Iran but cautioned it could no longer guarantee an infected person would not get through its border quarantine checks.
The government on Wednesday confirmed a man who had recently returned from Iran has contracted the virus, prompting officials to order anyone who has arrived in Australia from Iran since February 19 to self-isolate for two weeks.