Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Back in the outhouse days, people met their anatomical needs with a Sears catalog dangling from a piece of string.
Today, we use toilet paper. But since last month’s coronavirus outbreak, we’ve experienced an extended version of March madness.
As hoarders strip shelves of the precious product, a local Walmart has hired a security guard to stop people from pushing and shoving. Both Smith’s and Albertsons have set limits of one package per shopper.
There are reports of a Hong Kong delivery man being robbed at gunpoint of 600 rolls.
NCSolutions, a data and consulting firm, said online and in-store U.S. toilet paper sales climbed 51% between Feb. 24 and March 10 as buyers grew uneasy about the continuing numbers of virus cases. But sales rocketed 845% on March 11 and 12 as states announced lockdowns.
The amount of toilet paper the average American uses hasn’t changed; it’s still around 141 rolls annually (compared with 134 rolls in Germany and just 49 rolls in China). But even small changes in buying habits can throw everything down the commode.
U.S. household demand is up 40% as offices and schools close, according to the consulting firm AlixPartners. A photographer recently shot 40 rolls of Aussie toilet paper gliding down the baggage claim at a Tokyo airport. In Canada, two customers came to blows over toilet paper at Costco.
Toilet paper seems like a poor defense against a virus; the hoarding of cleaning products makes somewhat more sense.
Is this panic buying the result of a herd mentality?
An Albuquerque psychologist compared the behavior to the mass hysteria that followed the 1938 radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds.”
“The link is fear,” Albuquerque psychologist Steven Baum said. “There’s always going to be people whose personality is such that they’re hoarders because their anxiety is up.
“People are either very obsessed by their feces or ashamed,” he continued. “Freud wrote about this. In their subconscious, people have shame with toilet training. In this very anxiety-producing period of time, people en masse react in their most regressive way. Fear motivates almost everything.”
Psychologist Thomas McCaffrey agreed.
“It’s almost primal-based,” he said. “We are educated very early on to ‘poop is bad’ and ‘poop is awful.’ We’re socially conditioned.”
It all comes down to toilet training.
“If (our caretakers) were overly critical people, they might say they don’t want to be put in that position again. Who would want to go to that place if they were conditioned to feel shame if we had an accident?”
Some hoarders may respond that toilet paper has no substitute.
“Well, there are,” McCaffrey said. “There were leaves in the old days.”
Capitalizing on that fear, websites such as Etsy and Amazon.com trumpet toilet paper-inspired earrings, stickers and toilet roll-emblazoned socks. You can buy the jewelry replicas with real pearls, beading or gold plating.
“That’s very clever,” McCaffrey said. “I don’t think it’s funny in a negative way. I think we’re making fun of ourselves as human beings.”