*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on March 18, 2020. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.
The glass doors parted just enough for my side-body shimmy, then I squared my shoulders and double-timed it into the store, yanked a cart back, wheeled it past the bare produce shelves, hooked a hard right at the frozen section, and bee lined for my two-lettered target: TP. I slowed my semi-sprint as I approached the Swiffer supplies endcap, turned ninety degrees and lifted my head to see shelf after shelf after shelf of…nothing. It was gone. All of it.
For a split-second I wondered if there would be a shelter for our paper-less family. Maybe that motel would take us in, the one with the jokey sign that says, “Come stay with us, we have toilet paper.” (Not so funny anymore.)
As scary, ridiculous, and scarily ridiculous as this recent run on toilet paper has become—it does uncover two important challenges in American national emergencies that cannot be missed or ever be forgotten.
But first, why? Why is this happening? (Ok, I know some of this is my own fault. I saw the signs, heard the reports, should have gone earlier. I’ve completely failed as a dad to my two daughters.) But really, why are people panic-buying toilet paper? Economist Justin Wolfers likens it to a bank run. “Even if you’re not freaked out about a pandemic, you worry that everyone else is [and] they’ll stockpile,” and so because you don’t want to be left out, you “stockpile to avoid being shut out by others.” It’s a vicious cycle, and he went so far as to suggest a “Strategic Toilet Paper Reserve,” just as the Canadians keep a Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve.
But one thing Wolfers didn’t get into was that this all started somewhere. Someone was the starter’s pistol. There’s got to be one person—a TP ‘Patient Zero’—that catalyzed the entire cascade effect and put us into this miserable consumption cycle. I want to know who that guy is (and, yes, it probably was a guy), the one who triggered panicky purchasing as far away as Australia and New Zealand (where the upside is the world’s first all-bamboo toilet paper is rocketing off shelves).
While tracing this other kind of viral spread is important, of course, it’s not as important as reflecting on the two great challenges in American national crises the Great TP Rush of 2020 unmasks.
The first is prioritization. When I’ve seen grinning, lucky people pushing carts teeming with TP leaving Costco, they typically don’t have much else. Have they already gotten their 90-day supply of necessary medicines? Food, shelf stable supplies? Cleaning stuff? At the White House press conference to declare the national emergency, while flanked by executives from Walmart and other big-box stores, health secretary Alex M. Azar II reminded the public that “toilet paper is not an effective way to prevent getting the coronavirus.” Maybe we all should re-think what we really need.
Second, the gap between haves and have-nots comes into clearer view. The people that hoard toilet paper and other disaster-accoutrements are by and large well-off. They’re the ones that can hit-up a store when it opens on a weekday, or whenever they want, and spend hundreds of dollars on extra cushy two-ply for a huge personal stockpile. Minding this gap may be critical in coming months because viruses aren’t picky spreaders. An infection in anyone is a threat to everyone, so it matters that we protect all to the extent that we can.
As this virus hovers over us like a cloud, the silver lining is that a pandemic does give us all a chance to show how truly generous we Americans really are. To show how we can lift one another up and help others in need. We should all give a little when and where we can. So go give some blood. Go give to a food shelter. Go do your part.
And don’t forget to go give some paper to a family in need. Like mine. Remember, I have two little girls…can you spare some squares?