Passing Bite | Society

Panic buying: Much ado about toilet paper

Image: Getty Images/ iStock

Image: Getty Images/ iStock  

One would imagine they would buy rice, flour and pasta. Or soap. Maybe wine. But no, they didn’t

So, you’re living in a so-called developed country and an epidemic starts spreading like wildfire. The world is falling apart. You realise your best chance is to stay at home, minimise contact with other people, and try and survive the best you can.

But before you batten down the hatches, you must make a run to the nearest supermarket to capture whatever essential supplies you can for yourself and your family. Now, watching from this corner of the planet, one would imagine you would try and pick up long-lasting food supplies such as rice, flour, pasta, cous-cous, canned food, meat and veg that you can freeze and defrost later, a fair bit of alcohol perhaps, and soap, hand sanitisers and disinfectants. As everybody else also rushes into panic buying, one can imagine fights breaking out as people reach for the last packets of sugar or UHT long-life milk cartons.

But none of this happens — the brawls break out over packets of toilet rolls; you actually try to claw out some fellow shopper’s eyes as you wrestle with them over a 36-pack of ‘double-ply, extra soft’; somebody puts somebody else in hospital over a carton of ‘unscented, re-cycled’; shoppers are seen stumbling out into the parking lots with teetering towers of toilet paper and stuffing them into their cars as though they’re pulling off a heist of gold ingots from Fort Knox — if only I can get these 96 rolls home safely, everything I’ve always dreamt of will be mine!

Absurd product

Sitting where we are, one could be forgiven for thinking — what’s wrong with these people, has someone told them the water supply is going to be turned off?

The next bit of thinking could take the following route: What a wasteful culture the West has created! If only someone had taught them during toilet training how to wash themselves properly with water, and how that was much cleaner and healthier, there would not be this billion-dollar industry cutting down country-sized swathes of trees every year to manufacture this absurd product. Just a simple lota or mug in each toilet would take away this unseemly panic about the most simple act of daily hygiene.

After the brawls and semi-riots come the jokes on social media. A middle-eastern man posts a picture on Twitter of a lota with a spout and the comment: ‘Perhaps use this while others are killing each other over toilet-paper?’ To which an irate Englishwoman replies: ‘This is NOT the time for a cup of tea!’ Then there is a video from Australia where a man wearing a suit and a traditional bush hat sits in a bar and recites a poem that imagines looking at this moment from the future and examining why exactly toilet paper became such an issue. Talking about a moment when ‘the nation s***t itself’, the poem describes the hoarding of toilet paper : ‘…while other rocked on the verandah, their shotgun fully manned/ to protect their precious stock — they’d rather die than use their hand!

After a while, the humour subsides and the seriousness kicks in. A few years ago, I was witness to a public transport strike in London that stretched over two or three days during which most of the underground rail network was shut down and very few buses were running.

On the first day, people stayed in queues, more or less observing the daily civic courtesies for which Britain is known. On the second day, with buses on each route becoming more and more rare, tempers began to flare, and I began to notice increased pushing and shoving. By the evening rush hour on the third day, central London’s bus stops began to resemble Bombay’s Churchgate of yore, or Delhi’s Connaught Place or Calcutta’s Dharmatala, with people surrounding bus doors in feral swirls, shouting, clawing and body-slamming their way into each infrequent bus. It was startling to observe the thin cladding of the first world fall apart so quickly in the face of a little scarcity.

Herd logic

By now, there are articles on the Net about the run on toilet paper and how panic sets off ‘herd’ behaviour in people even in developed societies. When people feel things spiralling out of control, they strive to grab some agency in their daily lives and often this comes through the act of over-purchasing necessities; when people see others stock-piling some item, everyone starts reaching to corner ‘enough’ of the same product, leaving aside logic.

In India, we’ve often seen this kind of behaviour during crises and the repercussions of anticipated scarcity. Historically, we saw it before the famine of 1943; and recently we witnessed it during the demonetisation disaster.

We may see it yet again in the near future as the actual virus and the panic virus beset us in tandem.

The writer is a filmmaker and columnist.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 7:39:49 PM |

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