Bizarre hoarding behaviour over toilet paper has developed in Australia, the US, Singapore and possibly other countries in response to the rise of COVID-19, the most serious strain of the novel coronavirus. People are not just buying enough for a few weeks of self-isolation, but seemingly enough for an army for a year! There have been scuffles between customers wrestling over loo paper. COVID-19 only causes diarrhea in a tiny minority of cases, so it is hard to fathom why people are focusing on toilet paper to such a hysterical degree, rather than just sensibly stocking up moderately on food and other essentials. There is even a new hashtag trending: #toiletpaper.
This article in the Guardian discusses possible causes and explanations. One commentator said in Australia since the terrifying fires, people may have become more crisis sensitive. Another said people can be herd animals and just do what they see others doing. This is exactly what one woman interviewed said on TV. Though that’s anecdotal, one opinion and one person. However, once panic buying begins others may copy for practical reasons. Some people had to go to three supermarkets to find essentials. So once they found what they needed or wanted, they got extra- not just for themselves, but for friends and family who might also miss out. So the sight of empty shelves reinforces and escalates this behaviour.
Each time I’ve gone shopping I have been buying a few extra essentials to add to the pantry in case we are advised to self-isolate for a few weeks. I got extra tinned food, UHT milk, Vitamin C, Cleaning Vinegar, Tea Tree oil, etc. I buy ethical environmental toilet paper from the delightfully humorous company Who Gives a Crap, so I was able to order mine online as I was already a customer. They posted the most beautiful notice:
‘Well. That. Was. Crazy. With all the panic buying madness, we’ve sold out and are working as hard as possible to restock. While we do, we want to acknowledge that these are crazy times. We feel it too. So while we work to restock, please think about how we can all do our bit to encourage kindness, empathy and calm. If you have spare rolls, see if your neighbours need some. Go and support your favourite Chinese restaurant. Watch some puppy videos. Hugs, Who Gives A Crap’
Here in Australia, we use a great deal of toilet paper, and this loo paper ‘crisis’ may inspire people to adopt the European custom of a bidet or a bidet spray, a simple and cheap to install fitting. A cost-benefit analysis by Scientific American came out in favour of bidets.
But if people will fight over toilet paper, how will they be if other essentials get scarce- like food or water?? In the 30 hours since I began drafting this blog, it appears in some places almost everything has been panic bought: rice, tinned food, sardines, etc. According to the Victorian Council of Social Services and Foodbank Australia, this causes serious problems for people on social security. They shop when their money comes in and may not have a car or the energy if frail, physically disabled or ill to get themselves to another shop. It impacts people with dietary restrictions and allergies who already have limited choices, but may find those items gone.
It is easy to feel very judgemental. But before this storm fully hits, it could be more useful to explore why this counterproductive behaviour happens and how we might address it compassionately. When a significant number of adults are acting irrationally, we need elders and leaders to step up and help them calm down. People need reassurance and encouragement to consider the consequences of their actions, especially in the context of an impending crisis. We need to shift from focusing on our rights and what we need to our responsibilities. What does our community need? Sometimes that may be practicing judicious but compassionate social distancing to help our neighbours, but also doing all we can to slow the spread by being informed and prepared. Social norms like hugging and kissing may need to be suspended until the virus has peaked in our community.
I admit I had a serious freakout the other day. Not because I was afraid my family would get ill. We are all pretty healthy, but because I am in contact with a few people with compromised immune systems. After reading the literature on this new coronavirus and how highly transmissible it is, it seemed possible even trying hard to accidentally pass it on. After a while, I realised a great way to get sick is to get so stressed and jumpy, you make rash decisions and also strain your immune system. So I decided to calm down, make sensible preparations in case we see the worst scenario and hope for the best. I found sentiments expressed in a beautiful true story by writer Laura Lentz on how we choose to respond emotionally in this social media post deeply heartening.
Because I am a storyteller, I pondered relevant folktales. Two Buddhist folktales immediately came to mind: ‘The Difference Between Heaven and Hell’ and the story predecessor of Chicken Little, an ancient Jatarka tale, ‘The Sound that Hare Heard’. I hope you find them relevant. I won’t interpret them for you here. I’ll let you work it out. The links to our current situation are reasonably straight forward. But if you want to make a comment, feel free to do so on my FB page.
The Difference between Heaven and Hell
Adapted from a version in Elisa Permaine’s book, ‘Once Upon a Time: ’.
Long ago in Japan, there lived an old woman who had a wish. She wished more than anything to see for herself the difference between heaven and hell. The monks in the temple kindly agreed to grant her request. They put a blindfold around her eyes, and said, “First you shall see hell.” They lead her along winding paths for what seemed like hours.
When the blindfold was removed, the old woman was standing at the entrance to a great dining hall. The hall was full of tables and people were seated around them. The tables were all piled high with delicious foods of all kinds! Her mouth watered as delicious fragrances wafted towards her nose.
But when she looked closely at the people, she saw that they were horribly thin and their faces were grey and unhappy. Each person held a chopsticks. The chopsticks were three feet long! They were so long that the people in hell could reach the food on those platters, but they could not get the food back to their mouths.
As the old woman watched, she heard their hungry, pained cries. “I’ve seen enough,” she cried. “Please let me see Heaven.”
And so again the blindfold was put around her eyes, and the old woman heard, “Now you shall see heaven.” They lead her along winding paths for what seemed like hours.
When the blindfold was removed, the old woman was confused. For there she stood again, at the entrance to a great dining hall, filled with tables piled high with the same lavish feast. And again, she saw that there were people sitting just out of arm’s reach of the food with those three-foot long chopsticks.
But as the old woman looked more closely, she noticed that the people in heaven looked healthy and well-fed. They had rosy cheeks and chatted with each other happily as they ate. Laughter filled the air.
And soon the old woman was laughing too, for now, she understood the difference between heaven and hell.
The people in heaven were using those long chopsticks to feed each other.
Listen to this story here.
Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash
The Sound that Hare Heard
The Buddha, in answer to a question on the value of harsh spiritual practices, replied by comparing them to ‘the noise hare heard’. He then told the story. Hare heard a fruit thud onto the ground, decided the world was ending and started a stampede among the animals: herds of deer, boars, elk, buffalos, wild oxen and rhinoceros, a family of tigers and some elephants. Lion realised what was happening and roared three times to stop them, just before they plunged off a cliff into the sea. He investigated what caused their panic, explained their wrong assumptions, kindly reassured them all and pointed out the value of critical thinking. At the end of the story, the Buddha reveals that he was Lion in a previous life.
Read my blog, When it Feels Like the Sky is Falling for more about the potential applications of the tale Chicken Licken here.
Read more stories here.
Jenni Cargill-Strong leads ‘Stories for a More Beautiful World’ onlineworkshops for changemakers, educators, activists, and healers.She also holds Story Circles, storytelling workshops for beginners. Details at her Workshops page.
Learnhow to wash your hands really well here, though golly it wastes lots of water! If you have a lever tap you could knock it on and off with wrist or elbow.