Panic! At the Costco

How do you prepare for a disaster that leaves your city intact but destroys your way of life? Buy toilet paper.

Colin Horgan
Published in
4 min readMar 10, 2020


A person wearing protective clothes and a face mask at Costco in Shanghai. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

IIfirst noticed it on Leap Day. On February 29, less than a week after Covid-19 was found in the United States, my local Costco parking lot was full. It was the same at Costcos and similar bulk-buying palaces around the world. On Twitter, people across North America posted photos of lines out the doors as folks waited for a store associate to disinfect their cart with a quick wipe before being allowed inside. Amid the towers of goods, shoppers — some wearing surgical gloves — stocked up on dry foods and household items.

In the week since, the lines have grown longer and the shelves emptier. Of all the items people are hoarding, toilet paper has become the focus of our attention. When I returned to Costco later in the week, this time during the evening, a toilet paper roll sat in virtually every cart in sight. The run on toilet paper is happening everywhere: North America, Europe, Japan. Over the weekend, two women were charged after fighting in the aisles of a Woolworths in Sydney, Australia, over packages of toilet paper.

There is, of course, some rational decision-making going on — to a point. As I watched my fellow shoppers stack 40-roll packs of Cashmere Premium rolls into their carts, I did start to think about what might happen if my family was infected. How long could we last in quarantine? What would happen if, let’s say, we fell ill with only two or three toilet paper rolls left in the cupboard? Or, even if we’re never quarantined, would all this panic purchasing lead to an actual shortage? I threw in another 40-roll pack, just in case.

Still, as I loaded the toilet paper into my cart, I felt as if I were watching myself in a viral video of the early morning hours on Black Friday or Boxing Day — just another wild-eyed shopper caught up in a hoarding frenzy, irrationally grasping at items with an artificially shortened shelf life. No matter how rational my…