This article was first published in Women’s Agenda on Thursday 19 March, 2020.
See full article and Women’s Agenda daily news hub.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has just told Australians, like a parent scolding a naughty child, to just STOP IT.
“Stop hoarding. I can’t be more blunt about it. Stop it! It’s not sensible. It’s not helpful. And it’s been one of the most disappointing things I’ve seen in Australian behaviour in response to this crisis. That is not who we are as a people. It is not necessary. It is not something that people should be doing …. Stop doing it. It’s ridiculous. It’s un-Australian. And it must stop.”
I’m not sure whether I’m Australian or un-Australian or where the binary line is drawn (my genealogy is kind of muddy at best). But I am a parent. So I hear your ‘STOP IT!’, Scomo. Loud and clear.
But the thing is, as a (suddenly) working from home whilst concurrently home-schooling mother of four with kids who eat like locusts in a barley storm, and with growing COVID-19 panic, paranoia and the threat of home lock-down circling in, I’ve had to exercise a fair bit of self-control and a whole lot of ‘STOP IT’ in recent days in order to resist the urge to buy groceries and stockpile sundries in case our family of six find ourselves in soon-to-be mandatory home confinement.
Disclaimer: I’m ashamed to say that our pathetically urbanised family is possibly not capable of surviving for long in isolation. Our veggie patch can’t propagate a weed, our abundant succulents probably wouldn’t cut it as a stir fry, and with four teenage menstrual daughters and a little bit of perimenopause on the boil, Lord of the (actually quite terrible) Flies might soon descend on the household. (We also may need to mandate maximal social distancing. Stat.)
But as a parent and business owner trying to triage the day-to-day decision making and adaptation required to navigate a new normal in our working and schooling lives right now, under one roof, what I do know is that it feels like the collective panic has been as dangerous and contagious as the pandemic itself (now reported to be in more than 100 countries – and counting).
Because panic begets panic. And there is panic in the suburbs aplenty.
While we know, rationally, that there is no shortage of supplies, multiple WhatsApp groups and social feeds are filled with panicked texts from colleagues and friends and parents about how to survive and bunker down, where to get last stocks of toilet paper and the latest inappropriate #funnynotfunny #covidlife memes.
People we know and respect who are rational, educated, considered and usually very community-minded, have made confessions in the past 24 hours of stealth dawn missions to raid corner stores of pocket-pack tissues, kitchen wipes, sanitary items and strangely spiced couscous. (To be fair, at least they’re not panic-buying guns – a whole other level of disturbing playing out right now in the USA). But in many ways this is a pandemic of FOMO at its worst – a highly contagious and survivalist anxiety (and social-media) fuelled mental disorder epidemic, which can’t be treated with any known medication, or seemingly, conversation.
Shit got real in the past 48 hours. Black Mirror jumped the screen. We know people who have COVID-19. People do feel threatened.
And the unprecedented nature of this threat to our everyday lives and health has us all worriedly looking to each other for cues and signs for what is deemed safe, and what is not.
As hapless humans, when we see others behaving in certain ways, there is a follow-on contagion effect.
Perceived scarcity becomes actual scarcity. Anticipated consequence becomes an actual outcome in our minds. Fear fuels us, despite our rational selves.
Because however evolved we think we are, we humans are mere lemmings when we strip it down to basics. We copy each other. We’re programmed to. We can’t actually help it.
So if we are going to stop it, we need a large majority of us to actually, as Scomo implored, STOP IT.
Consumer psychology experts report that the hoarding and stockpiling behaviour that is sweeping the world right now (with Australia being one of the most guilty hyper-purchasing nations) is driven by the part of the brain that is completely irrational.
Our unblinking, unthinking herd mentality is flamed by social media and hyperbolic news coverage, perpetuating a state of insecurity and panic buying amongst the general populace, which is stronger than our drive to desist.
You’d think our social conscience and thoughts for the most vulnerable or greater collective would override our toilet paper and plain flour compulsions. But sadly not. NFP charities like OzHarvest (which delivers food to more than 1,300 charities around Australia, indirectly feeding millions of Australians) said today they are facing an unprecedented strain on their services and calling on the government for immediate financial assistance due to lack of supply.
Many other charities are suffering from depleting staple donations and diminishing availability of volunteer staff, which means those who live hand to mouth or are reliant on charity services to survive, have no option in the absence of aid – they can’t afford to stockpile because they simply don’t have the surplus dollars in the bank.
To offset the need, earlier this week, supermarkets including Woolworths and Coles, introduced a designated shopping time for people with a disability and elderly citizens to ensure they had equal opportunity to do their budget weekly shopping and purchase staples.
Presumably, it was also to try and hold back the crowds and hose down the high emotions we’ve seen playing out in stores across the country. In the past week, Australian supermarkets have seen punches thrown, security guards assaulted and frenzied over-purchasing of staples and toilet paper, despite the fact that all the expert advice says coronavirus has no risk of rapid onset excessive diarrhoea, and we have no supply issues (most of the nation’s toilet paper rolls are made locally).
Online, the panic continues, with #toiletpapergate and #toiletpapercrisis still top trending on Twitter this week, toilet paper rolls being flogged for exorbitant prices on e-stores, and listeners calling into talkback radio stations to win packs of three-ply rolls.
Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Brendan Murphy, told parliament this week: “We are trying to reassure people that removing all of the lavatory paper from the shelves of supermarkets probably isn’t a proportionate or sensible thing to do at this time.”
But people keep doing it. Despite themselves.
Back at the ranch, as we got down to our last squares today and a fresh ripple of panic rocked the afternoon, I reminded my daughters that the ancient Romans didn’t have Sorbent. They used a communal gomph (sea sponge) on a stick. Unpatterned. (Response from daughters unfiltered, and censored here).
Case in point number two was that most countries in Southeast Asia, as well as parts of Southern Europe, favour the use of water from a hose or bucket as a post-toileting cleanser. (Again, response censored here).
Then in an impromptu afternoon (off-curriculum) lesson, a quick google of the Short History of Toilet Paper told us that toilet paper wasn’t widely packaged and sold in the USA until 1857, and that prior to that, most Americans were known to use the absorbent pages from the Sears Catalog and Farmers’ Almanac. The Almanac eventually added a hole in the corner of each edition, to make it easier for patrons to tear, read, and wipe (hopefully in that order). Notably, it wasn’t actually until 1935 that any manufacturer in the country thought to promise a “splinter-free toilet paper”. (Presumably, there was no consumer ‘paint point’ prior).
But the key take-away from our COVID-19 homeschool today was that, as Darwin apparently mumbled once: “It is not the strongest of the species, nor the most intelligent, that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
Change because we have to. Change because we’ve been asked to. Change because toilet paper is a luxury for most of the peeps on the planet.
And because change actually begets change.
So put the panic aside, fellow citizens. STOP IT. Stop the shopping to flatten the curve.
And remember that in times like these, acceptance, adaptation and utilitarianism will serve us better than a roll of bloody Sorbent every will.