An illustrated Jayhawk sits on a toilet

Opinion columnist Jeffrey Birch discusses artificial shortages amid the coronavirus outbreak, and he encourages readers to prevent panic by discerning between what they think they need and what they actually need. 


Everyone’s worried.

Before I start, it’s important to remember that just about every person on the planet is worried about the novel coronavirus crisis. Not all for the same reasons, however, as some people are worried about getting sick, while others are worried about spreading the sickness to others without knowing, and more so others are worried about having enough money to get through the quarantine.

One of the more interesting effects of all this concern is the current supplies situation. Vital supplies are not running out. We have plenty of food, medicine and sanitary products. However, if you walk into a grocery store, you see empty shelves.

The problem isn’t scarcity — the problem is that everyone’s worried. And, it’s gotten to a point that it’s starting to negatively affect the people who are being the most affected by the outbreak.

First it was basic medical supplies, face masks being one of major things that saw artificial scarcity. People were concerned about getting the virus, so they did what seemed logical to them, doctors and nurses wear masks, so why not? But medical professionals work around lots of sick people, and some of those people are very vulnerable. They need to not get sick, and they need to not spread anything they might be unwittingly carrying to someone who could be vulnerable.

The average college student does not have those same concerns. The only reason someone our age should be wearing a mask is because they suspect they might have caught COVID-19, or they are uniquely vulnerable to it for some reason.

For the rest of us, washing hands regularly is sufficient to keep you healthy. Because, as I said earlier, medical professionals, who are working night and day to keep people alive when they are being overloaded with cases, desperately need to be wearing full protection, creating a shortage by buying up masks for yourself will only make things worse for the people that really are vulnerable.

Now, the other artificial shortage we’re seeing is, oddly enough, toilet paper. The toilet paper case is a much more interesting situation because unlike the face masks, toilet paper will do nothing to stop someone from catching the virus. The reason there’s a shortage is a combination of several factors.

First of all, toilet paper is nonperishable, so you truly could stock up on thousands of rolls at a time and not worry about running out for years. Even foods that last a long time don’t last forever, and most people don’t want to be eating the kind of food that lasts for 10 years.

The second factor is it’s a commodity we’ve come to rely on to some extent. Running out of toilet paper is a truly archetypal “first-world problem.” Most people have never actually had to go without it, and during a very scary time, trying to keep things within a semblance of normal is vital.

But ultimately, it really just takes one person being selfish to get here. Someone somewhere bought all of the toilet paper in a store, and everyone around them panicked, and that panic spread like a disease itself. Now, there are some people who genuinely need it and others who sit on a 10-year supply, and the current scary situation just got a little more isolated and a little more scary.

During these uncertain times, it is especially hard to look outside of what you need, what you want and what you think is necessary, but right now everyone is having to deal with a very unfamiliar world, and it's up to us to make that new world one where we care for the people around us. It just takes a little effort.

Jeffrey Birch is a senior from Wichita studying accounting.