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When hygiene is a matter of life or death

20 April 2020

Hygiene plays a vital role in society – and never more so than it does now. Renée Remijnse from Tork manufacturer Essity discusses the urgent need for hygiene products during the COVID-19 pandemic and provides an update on what Essity is doing in the global fightback against the virus.

The COVID-19 pandemic has alerted us all to the importance of hygiene.

Never before have so many organisations urged us to wash our hands frequently, explaining exactly how and when we should go about it.

Meanwhile, hand sanitisers and cleaning products have been flying off the shelves in supermarkets everywhere. And toilet rolls and other paper consumables have been in increasingly short supply as people stock up on these essentials.

Suddenly the topic of hygiene has shot to the top of the agenda – which is a highly unusual occurrence.

Customer engagement

Manufacturers of hygiene products such as ourselves at Essity are accustomed to encountering low levels of engagement on the part of customers. This is perhaps unsurprising because facilities managers tend to treat items such as toilet rolls and other paper products as an afterthought when equipping their hospitals, restaurants, airports and offices. 

However, everyday essentials such as these are precisely the types of items that are in high demand whenever a crisis occurs.

Toilet roll shortages have been reported worldwide since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, and stockpiling by consumers has led to many stores having to ration customers to a few packs each.

Panic-buying of toilet paper is not unusual during periods of national tension.  A light-hearted comment made on American TV in the 1970s prompted consumers to completely clear the US supermarkets of toilet rolls. This occurred during the energy crisis when people were already anxious about the prospect of petrol shortages. A joke by television host Johnny Carson concerning the possibility of toilet paper running out sent consumers rushing to their local stores. And it took around a month for supplies to return to normal.

Toilet paper also disappeared from supermarket shelves in Japan in 2011 following an earthquake and tsunami that resulted in nearly 20,000 deaths. And in 2013, a drop in toilet tissue production in Venezuela prompted the nation’s consumers to hoard toilet rolls which caused national unrest. The government eventually had to take drastic action, seizing a toilet paper factory in an effort to ensure an ongoing supply.

Besides creating a run on toilet rolls, the COVID-19 emergency has also led to a heightened awareness of the importance of hand hygiene. Instructions on how to achieve an effective hand wash have been give out by all key health bodies including the World Health Organisation and the NHS. Never before has hand hygiene been highlighted as such a vital tool in the bid to keep us all safe.

Tackling COVID-19

As a global manufacturer of hygiene products, we at Essity have an important role to play in helping to battle COVID-19. We have long been strong advocates of hand hygiene as an important weapon in the fight against infections and viruses, and we have always offered guidance on effective hand washing and drying on our websites.

We responded swiftly to the toilet paper shortages when consumers began to stockpile these items back in March. We increased our output to cope with higher demand across all markets, achieving this by streamlining the numbers of categories we produced and only manufacturing those items that were in greatest demand. 

Cutting the number of product lines meant that our machines had to be halted less frequently, saving us time while allowing us to increase our output.

Essity is also making every effort to ensure that our products reach those bodies and communities where they are needed most. For example, we are working with the Private Organizations for Patient Safety, WHO and local governments to prioritise the supply of products to healthcare customers. 

We also recently donated 3,600 rolls of Tork toilet paper to a US agency which provides housing to people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

And we are helping out with other shortages where we can. An increasing number of people are now wearing face masks to avoid picking up the virus from people nearby and from the air around them.

We at Essity recognised the importance of masks for the protection of our factory workers early on, but a global shortage made it difficult for us to access these products.

We therefore decided to make our own. Our R&D and technology departments teamed up with Swedish healthcare company Mölnlycke and we converted one of our test lines into a new production line. Within a week we had successfully produced more than 100,000 masks.

We have now been approached by the Swedish government to make higher-grade masks that could also be used in healthcare.

Meanwhile, we are doing what we can to help hard-hit communities across the globe. In Italy we donated 51,600 items of personal protective equipment including masks, gloves and glasses to local hospitals. We have also sent a truck containing 44 pallets of baby diapers and feminine protection to help stressed communities in Greece.

And we have donated $200,000 to the United Nations Foundation to support the World Health Organisation's lifesaving work in developing a vaccine against the virus that causes COVID-19.

The global pandemic is everyone’s problem. People the world over are losing their livelihoods, their loved ones - and their lives.  The solution, when it comes, will be a result of us all working together, helping the most vulnerable and supporting other nations where we can. And at Essity we are proud to be a part of this global initiative.