Panic! At the Costco

How do you prepare for a disaster that leaves your city intact but destroys your way of life? Buy toilet paper.

A person wearing protective clothes and a face mask at Costco in Shanghai. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

Ifirst noticed it on Leap Day. On February 29, less than a week after Covid-19 was found in the United States, my local Costco parking lot was full. It was the same at Costcos and similar bulk-buying palaces around the world. On Twitter, people across North America posted photos of lines out the doors as folks waited for a store associate to disinfect their cart with a quick wipe before being allowed inside. Amid the towers of goods, shoppers — some wearing surgical gloves — stocked up on dry foods and household items.

In the week since, the lines have grown longer and the shelves emptier. Of all the items people are hoarding, toilet paper has become the focus of our attention. When I returned to Costco later in the week, this time during the evening, a toilet paper roll sat in virtually every cart in sight. The run on toilet paper is happening everywhere: North America, Europe, Japan. Over the weekend, two women were charged after fighting in the aisles of a Woolworths in Sydney, Australia, over packages of toilet paper.

There is, of course, some rational decision-making going on — to a point. As I watched my fellow shoppers stack 40-roll packs of Cashmere Premium rolls into their carts, I did start to think about what might happen if my family was infected. How long could we last in quarantine? What would happen if, let’s say, we fell ill with only two or three toilet paper rolls left in the cupboard? Or, even if we’re never quarantined, would all this panic purchasing lead to an actual shortage? I threw in another 40-roll pack, just in case.

Still, as I loaded the toilet paper into my cart, I felt as if I were watching myself in a viral video of the early morning hours on Black Friday or Boxing Day — just another wild-eyed shopper caught up in a hoarding frenzy, irrationally grasping at items with an artificially shortened shelf life. No matter how rational my decision-making felt, it seemed to both perpetuate unnecessary mass hysteria and be kind of useless. If Covid-19 is going to infect my entire family, no amount of toilet paper is going to do much to help things. What good is toilet paper, really, when you’re struggling to even breathe?

Panic buying is usually localized, most often seen in the days before and after a hurricane or any natural disaster. In those cases, there is a cold logic to it. You will need bottled water because your taps will be dry. You will need food because the stores may be closed, not to mention the roads. You will need toilet paper because, well, you’ll just eventually need it — as long as you’re still eating. But a pandemic is a bit different, and not merely because of its scale. In a way, it’s an abstract threat: Maybe the virus will hit you, but it’s impossible to predict how, when, or how bad it will be, if anything at all. We are all in its path to some degree. How do you prepare for a natural disaster that leaves your electricity on, your water running, and your neighborhood intact, but still destroys you?

Quarantine collectively scans as a threat to normalcy more than a threat to life.

Beyond all the rational justifications for grabbing items in a frenzy, there’s a certain comfort that comes from purchasing, particularly in bulk. The unsubtle meta-message of a supermarket is one of endless supply. When it comes to a bulk store, it’s heightened still: These are castles of abundance, offering not just as much as you could ever take or need, but much more. Consumerism in these places reaches the level of myth-making, consuming to reinforce the idea of consumption — a statement about our society and our faith in it. Shopping has reached a point where it’s an act of security as well as acquisition: We buy things, in part, to reinforce the idea that we can buy things. In the face of a pandemic, this security is threatened, and the loop is accelerated. We buy more, faster.

Which brings us back to toilet paper.

The toilet paper frenzy of 2020 suggests that what we try to protect, at least mentally, is not our lives but our lifestyle. Quarantine collectively scans as a threat to normalcy more than a threat to life. And while toilet paper isn’t essential to survival, it is, along with flushing toilets, a crude but generally recognized signifier of a developed society — the dividing line between civilization and barbarism.

Having a lot of toilet paper on hand in preparation for a significant, looming disruption of society gives us the ability to preserve it, if only in our own homes, for as long as possible. This means that hoarding toilet paper is a sign of mass denial as much as mass hysteria: the reluctance to admit that, in a weird way, it’s the foundation of modern life. Hence the worry. We know, under pressure, toilet paper — and the civilization we’ve built on it — can’t hold for long.


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