Flat White

How the great toilet paper panic has made asses of us all

5 March 2020

3:51 PM

5 March 2020

3:51 PM

This afternoon, on the way back from the gym, I popped into my local Coles to get some fruit and vegetables. After picked up everything I wanted, curiosity took me towards the toilet paper aisle. I was expecting a crisis but I wasn’t expecting to find it completely empty. Even most of the tissues were gone. Elsewhere in the store, all the pasta but for some of the most exotic and expensive kinds has walked off the shelves, as has all the rice, except for a dozen or so lonely (though I suspect not for long) 1kg packs of Italian arborio and brown basmati — something I didn’t even know existed as it has usually hidden so well among all the better-known types.

As I mentioned the other day, when first discussing the current crisis, I can understand people stocking up on some less perishable food items – in fact, the authorities now recommend you have about two weeks’ worth of food in your pantry and your fridge just in case – but I still can’t understand the toilet paper. Even the Prime Minister has now chimed in with a public service announcement to discourage people from hoarding sanitary items.

In fact, days into the whole fracas, I’m still yet to hear one logical explanation why so many feel they need a few dozen rolls in case of a full-blown pandemic. Buying up paper has now become a memetic behaviour where people are doing it because “everyone else is doing it”, not bothering to pause and think if and why they need a cupboard full of 3-ply goodness. This is a social contagion and a social panic at its starkest. No wonder “to go viral” is a euphemism for a fast spread of an image or an idea; we’re experiencing a viral outbreak of bogrollitis.

If the concern is that the toilet paper is made in China or at least overseas and therefore a subject to shipping interruptions, they need not worry. Australian manufacturers, like Kleenex, have gone to all lengths to reassure the public no one will end up with an empty cardboard tube mocking them from the hook next to their toilet.


Kleenex is now working three shifts every 24 hours to resupply the stores. Knowing capitalism and the market forces, so are most likely all the other local suppliers.

And yet… In Parramatta, western Sydney, a customer pulled a knife at a local Woolworths store in a dispute over toilet paper. Faced with empty shelves and angry customers, many shops are now restricting the quantity per customer. This too reminds me of my communist Polish childhood in the early 1980s when most food and personal products were rationed. This didn’t necessarily always guarantee you would get your monthly ration, but generally ensured more people would have a chance. There were always ways of supplementing your entitlement; I remember my mother buying ration cards or portions of them from the neighbourhood alcoholics. With hindsight, it doesn’t sound nice but socialist life was much more Hobbesian than that under the exploitative capitalism.

As if the lavatory paper wasn’t enough, condoms are also selling out, apparently because a post on social media stated they protect from Coronavirus when put on fingers. So just if you were thinking that buying hundreds of toilet rolls was crazy, here comes something really inexplicably stupid.

Lest we think this madness is an Australian thing – or, more specifically, an Australian bogan thing – let’s remember that panic buying of toilet paper (as well as other items, of course) has first started at least a month ago in Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, though in these cases the concern about the supply from China was a driving force behind the rush, giving rise to wonderful stories like this:

American Joel Werner runs a hedge fund, Solitude Capital Management in Hong Kong. On February 10, he bought the equivalent of 216 rolls of toilet paper on Amazon.com Inc. after his family tried in vain for days to find any in Hong Kong. The shipping alone cost $200 but he thinks it was worth it. He kept half of the bounty and plans to give the other half to friends and colleagues.

“It’s a better gift than wine now,” he said.

What does the future hold? At least if Coronavirus turns into a real zombie apocalypse Australians will be able to wipe themselves for months, though most will probably starve and otherwise die well before then – after all, you can’t eat paper.

Hopefully, the pandemic will be contained soon (maybe due to one of the vaccines being currently developed around the world proving effective) and for most Australians, rather than the date of another Black Death or Spanish Flu, 2020 will long be remembered as the year we had to buy toilet paper only the once.

Arthur Chrenkoff blogs at The Daily Chrenk, where a version of this piece also appears.

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