Jack Knox: Dispatches from the Great Toilet Paper Panic

What if you just need toilet paper? What if you’re a perfectly rational human being, not some wild-eyed hoarder whose first reaction to the advent of a new, flu-like disease is to kill all the neighbours in a two-block radius and stuff your basement with enough Charmin to gift-wrap the legislature?

“I felt like I had to explain myself,” a friend said, describing her experience at the checkout counter when she rolled up with a 24-pack poking out of her cart.

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“I’m not a crackpot,” she blurted to the other shoppers. “We’re down to our last couple of rolls.” Still, they smirked.

Victoria’s TP panic continued unabated Monday, bathroom tissue barely touching store shelves before being whisked off to a new home.

The Uptown Walmart gets restocked every day, but still the shelves were devoid of toilet paper by noon Monday. Same story at Costco: doors open at 9, pallets empty by coffee time.

It was less dire elsewhere. Half a kilometre away, the Market on Millstream’s toilet-roll shelves were still half-filled. Ditto for the Save-On-Foods at the Tillicum Mall and the Fairway Market at the Westshore Town Centre, though some pharmacies were wiped out, as it were.

Fairway vice-president Robert Jay says he has noticed more shoppers leaving the Shelbourne store with toilet paper, though it’s not like they’re hauling away mountains of the stuff or duking it out in the aisles like you see on YouTube. “We do have toilet paper here in the store.”

No need for the Times Colonist to emulate the Australian newspaper that printed an extra eight blank pages, just in case readers ran short.

Still, where bare shelves exist, desperation follows. I saw one Costco customer snatch a 12-pack of Kleenex-style tissue as though it were the Holy Grail, or maybe the last Timbit in the box. He looked triumphant: it reminded me of the brewery lockout of ’78, when a guy pulled into a Duncan parking lot with a pickup load of smuggled Olympia beer and a bunch of us lined up to pay $20 for $5 cases of beer.

Buddy better not be using the facial tissue as a substitute for toilet paper, though.

The plumbing can’t handle it, not in these days of lo-flush loos. “No Kleenex!” said a woman at Roto-Rooter. “It’s going to plug up their toilets for sure.”

Yes, Victoria, this is how far we have fallen: a disease that has yet to emerge on Vancouver Island somehow triggers a run on toilet paper, leading plumbers to warn us against plugging our pipes with alternatives. It’s hard to believe that we’re the same species that once walked on the moon.

Many, it seems, don’t have the ability to distinguish between A) the need for all of us to be rigorous in collectively trying to contain COVID-19, and B) the idea that we should dig a backyard bunker and stock it with Purex Ultra.

Why? Writing in Psychology Today, McGill University’s Samuel Veissiere argues that — and here I paraphrase — we are hard-wired to react, not necessarily logically, to pathogens that threaten us. It’s a defence mechanism.

“To understand this strange dynamic, consider people’s blatant inability to make statistically correct inferences about actual risk in the current epidemic of catastrophizing about COVID-19,” he wrote. “The human propensity to ignore basic probability, and our mind’s fondness for attending to ‘salient’ information, is well-documented. The negativity bias is one of the most potent of such pre-programmed mental heuristics: Any cue that contains information about potential dangers and threats will jump to mind easily, will be easier to remember, and easier to pass on.”

Dr. Bonnie Henry, ever the voice of knowledge and reason, keeps telling us what to do. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Limit physical contact with others. Stay home if you’re sick (and don’t let your kids go to school with the sniffles, either). If unwell, don’t visit care homes or hospitals or other places where older, vulnerable people are (that’s not just a COVID-19 thing; they are susceptible to whatever bug is actually causing you to cough and sneeze). Wash your hands again.

Except that’s not enough for some.

The same people who last month didn’t know where to put the apostrophes in Wet’suwet’en but still considered themselves experts on Indigenous governance now assume a knowledge of infectious diseases similar to that of Donald “Maybe I have a natural ability” Trump. Logic goes down the drain, with or without toilet paper.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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