BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - 2020/03/04: Customers looks
Empty toilet paper shelves in a supermarket in Brisbane, Australia, on 4 March 2020. (Photo by Florent Rols/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

  • Other countries were struggling with the novel coronavirus well before South Africa – so we've had some glimpses of the future.
  • These are the items that were highly prized – and in some cases ran out – in other countries when Covid-19 fears caused heavy buying.
  • Products for symptomatic relief of symptoms of the flu or common cold were popular, but it was often toilet paper that ran out first.
  • For more stories go to

In Australia it was toilet paper, in Italy it was pasta, and in the US hand sanitiser went first.

In various parts of the world hit by the novel coronavirus, people rushed to stores to stock up on what they considered to be essential supplies.

The first positive test for Covid-19 in South Africa was announced on Thursday.

See also: The novel coronavirus has landed in South Africa – here is everything we know

Though the only dire shortage was in face masks, supermarket supply chains had trouble keeping up with demand, causing further stock-runs as the sight of empty shelves stirred mild panic.

In the UK, major retailers considered scaling back on the range of products they supply to reduce the complexity of logistics, while focussing on keeping in stock the basic staples most required. In Australia stores rationed toilet paper, and in India the government banned the export of some pharmaceutical ingredients.

If you are concerned about shortages in South Africa due to Covid-19 panic-buying, here's what we saw in the rest of the world.

Toilet paper

Woolworths in Australia implemented toilet-paper rationing, and saw a stampede at one Sydney store. It was not the only retailer to see people go crazy for toilet paper – for no particular reason.

While Australia imports toilet paper from China, and there are legitimate fears of a disruption to those supplies, most of what it uses is made in-country, and there was no sign of shortages at supermarkets, never mind at warehouse level.

(A national association of plumbers in Australia warned consumers not to replace toilet paper – designed to break down and not clog pipes – with even "flushable" wipes, which risk causing blockages.)

Antiseptic and disinfectant wipes, and waterless hand cleaner

In parts of the United States the Costco chain, the equivalent of SA's Makro, reported trouble keeping up with demand for the kind of cleaning supplies that could help stave off infection: hand wipes, waterless hand cleaner, and the like.

The same thing happened in the United Kingdom – though attempts to sell hand sanitiser at 10 times the usual price seemed to be largely limited to

Manufacturers quickly ramped up production, but were unable to keep ahead of hoarders.

(Hand sanitiser helps – but washing with soap and water is better at stopping infectious disease.)

Rice, pasta, and tinned food

Shelf-stable foods, particularly canned foods of various kinds and pasta and rice (in parts of the world where that is the equivalent of maize meal) saw runs on supplies in various countries once isolation measures were announced, and in some cases as soon as initial positive tests for the Covid-19 virus were announced.

In Italy food shoppers apparently came to blows, and in Britain noodles proved very popular in early March.

Frozen foods were also popular in various countries that saw panic buying – but presumably South Africans will be weary of anything that requires electricity to store, with the ever-present risk of load shedding.

Paracetamol and a handful of other drugs

It was government intervention, rather than consumer panic, that caused trouble when it came to a handful of drug types, including a few that can provide symptomatic relief for a mild case of Covid-19, such as paracetamol.

In early March the Indian government banned the export of a list of pharmaceutical ingredients, causing fears of widespread drug shortages because the sheer size of India's generic drug exports. The list includes antibiotics and anti-virals.

But the Indian move seemed triggered by a drop in exports from Hubei, the Chinese province that houses Wuhan, rather than the expectation of a big increase in demand for the drugs. It nonetheless led to stockpiling in various parts of the world.

Also popular in some part of the world were zinc throat lozenges, which though not recommended for even symptomatic relief in coronavirus infections seems to have some benefit when taken for the common cold.

Face masks – even though their utility is limited

In many Asian countries, face masks of various kinds were the first thing to run out after Covid-19 outbreaks – after long queues and fights between desperate shoppers.

Occasionally desperate attempts by health authorities to stop the general public from buying masks did nothing to stop such buying elsewhere in the world.

South Africa does not have a culture of wearing a mask when you have an infectious respiratory disease (which is far more effective than trying to protect yourself against illness by wearing a mask), but that could change if local companies follow World Health Organisation recommendations to make masks available in workplaces.

See also: Not all masks are equal when it comes to stopping coronavirus. Here’s what SA experts say

More on office hygiene - here.

More on hand hygiene - here.  

More on Covid-19:

See also: The novel coronavirus has landed in South Africa – here is everything we know