The Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2020


Around the world, the shop shelves are emptying fast.

In Australia:

Australian supermarkets are being completely stripped of essential items from people seemingly stockpiling products as fears surrounding the coronavirus outbreak skyrocket.

Images shared to social media on the weekend showed shelves from popular retailers Woolworths, Coles and Aldi having been cleared of certain items, as the first Australian died of the deadly disease on Sunday.

Essential items like toilet paper, water and hand sanitiser, have been walking off the shelves as have pantry staples including bread, flour, rice, canned food and pasta.

In Japan:

Panicked Japanese consumers are stripping shelves bare of toilet paper, as unsubstantiated rumors of shortages stemming from the new coronavirus epidemic circulate on social media, sending prices soaring.

in Hong Kong:

Police in Hong Kong have arrested two men and are searching for a third after the group stole about 600 toilet paper rolls, in a robbery likely sparked by coronavirus fears that have gripped the city.

In the United States:

Shoppers in Hawaii have been seen in long lines for toilet paper and paper towels. It’s believed the demand for basic supplies have been prompted by fears surrounding the coronavirus outnbreak [sic] as it continutes [sic] to spread globally.

This is happening alright, and it’s not some isolated incidents; on my Facebook news feed, at least half a dozen posts from friends in Sydney and Brisbane display photos of Venezuela-style empty shelves at their local supermarkets. The fear is real, and so is the hoarding.

OK, I can understand face masks and hand sanitisers walking off the shelves, as these are the crucial tools in containing the spread of the pandemic. Most face masks – as with so many other products in our shops – are made in China and in the current crisis conditions any new and additional supplies won’t make it out of the country, so whatever is already here is it. And it isn’t, as masks have been the first item to disappear from retail outlets from your local pharmacy to a Bunnings store.

I can also understand the non-perishable food supplies. Even though Australia could be quite self-sufficient if need be (minus the out of season imported fruit and veg), possibly people are stocking up not so much in fear the food will run out but out of reluctance to go out in the public in a few weeks’ time should the situation really turn into a zombie apocalypse. In any case, there is nothing wrong with having a well stocked pantry.

Where I start to no longer understand the consumers is bottled water. We are fortunate to live in a developed country where one can safely drink from a tap. There won’t be shortages of drinkable water under any circumstances – except for a complete societal collapse – and coronavirus is not a water-borne pathogen like those causing cholera or typhoid. If you are still paranoid, you can boil your water before ingesting (just make sure you cool it down).

But it’s the toilet paper that really gets me. Trust me, if things go really belly up, toilet paper is the least of your worries. Humanity has survived for tens of millennia without sanitary tissues,* and in their absence any paper or rag or even running water will substitute nicely. Food, water, medicines, electricity, to name just four, are much more crucial in a time of crisis or emergency. Again, it’s true that a lot of toilet paper is manufactured in China or generally overseas and so potentially susceptible to shortages if manufacturing and international transport are affected as they are already. But how much toilet paper does your household require to function? Are you expecting you might need the iron rations of your favourite rolls to last for at least a few months? And if you think that you might not be able to restock on toilet paper until later this year, then – let me repeat myself – don’t you think you will have much bigger problems with ensuring your continuing survival to worry about?

Personally, of course, what I find the most ironic about the current situation are the memories it brings back of growing up in communist Poland, when in the early to mid-1980s you really had to queue up for toilet paper (or “srajtasma” as it was colloquially known – a shit tape), mostly unsuccessfully, because of the endemic shortages, unless you “knew people”, which my father fortunately did and so we never lacked in the basic sandpaper-grade, deep grey-shaded, uneven shaped rolls that in truth looked like slightly wider (and depressing) versions of party streamers. The fact that the socialist government couldn’t even provide the workers in their paradise with something as basic as toilet paper has since then become both a historical joke as well as a serious emblem of the failings of planned economy where, as the saying goes, everything is planned except for the economy, as this nostalgia-inducing archival news story from 1984 (!) reports:

For once President Reagan was not blamed by communist authorities for the latest woe facing Poles — an official shortage of toilet paper.

Poles have been promised an extra roll this year to meet demand.

‘We know for sure that supply of toilet paper does not meet demand,’ the government newspaper, Rzeczpospolita, said Thursday.

‘The 255 million rolls of paper which found their way to the shops last year were bought out on the spot,’ the paper said of the toilet paper shortage that has allowed Poles an average of seven rolls per year.

Surprisingly, toilet paper has been a key indicator in assessing the state of Poland’s economy during 40 years of communist rule. Shortages have always occurred in times of crisis and only former Communist Party leader Edward Gierek, expelled from the party on charges of economic irresponsibility in 1980, managed to satisfy demand by importing Western paper.

The authorities have this year promised ‘a certain improvement’ by producing another 10 million rolls for market consumption, bringing the total number of rolls available to 265 million this year. They have also promised an additional plant by the end of 1985.

And so, for the second time in my lifetime, communists have f***ed up and as a result we don’t have toilet paper. Fortunately, there are always the multi-volume collected works of Karl Marx, Lenin and Mao to wipe your ass on if the shortages persist.

* The “Seinfeld” fanatics might recall the history of toilet paper was the subject of the very first joke in the very first episode of the series.