If enough people do something utterly stupid, you have to do it, too.
That’s an Immutable Law of the Indifferent Universe that I just made up at the supermarket the other day. Having completed my run at the coffee section and the bread and doughnut aisle, I was confronted by nearly empty shelves that once held bathroom tissue.
I had spent days making fun of all those idiots who created the great toilet paper crisis of 2020 by stocking up on that commodity to somehow stave off the Wuhan/Corona/COVID-19 virus, or whatever we’re calling it this week. And it suddenly occurred to me that I would probably have to join them.
No matter what I thought of them, if they had created a great enough shortage, there wouldn’t be any toilet paper when I needed it, unless I bought it right then and there. So, I added a six-pack of triple-roll, two-ply to my cart, even though I had at least a month’s supply at home already.
I saw it not as following the herd but running with it so as not to get trampled underneath it in the mad rush.
I almost added a good supply of bread and milk to boot until I remembered that, no, that’s what we’re supposed to buy when the first half-inch snow of the season panics us. Protocols must be observed.
What is it about our psychology that leads us to completely ignore the possibility of danger until it’s too obvious to ignore, then try to alleviate our concerns by going overboard in a silly and ineffective way?
If we’re so worried about lasting out a storm, how about some bottled water, canned food and a few fruits and vegetables to go with the bread and milk? If staying pristine through the pandemic is a concern, why not add some soap, shampoo and toothpaste to the toilet paper?
It turns out we are afflicted with something called “zero risk bias,” in which, economist Yves Herman explains, “people prefer to try to eliminate one type of possibly superficial risk entirely rather than do something that would reduce their total risk by a greater amount.
“Hoarding also makes people feel secure. This is especially relevant when the world is faced with a novel disease over which all of us have little or no control. However, we can control things like having enough toilet paper in case we are quarantined.”
There is a more sensible way to handle things: Be prepared.
The federal government has long recommended keeping enough food, water and other supplies on hand to last at least 72 hours in case of any disaster like a flood or an earthquake. (See list here: https://www.ready.gov/kit). Anybody got even that? How about the two-week supply it now says we should have for a pandemic? (See https://www.ready.gov/pandemic).
My brother in Hill Country is way ahead of the curve on this. He has enough food, water and other necessary supplies to last up to 12 months, and he could lay in enough liquid propane to go even longer. Take that, disaster; don’t mess with Texans.
Of course, when we say “disaster,” we tend to think of something sudden and unexpected, a destructive force that pounces and then moves on, leaving us to pick up the pieces and get back to normal.
Some people seem to think this pandemic will get worse and worse as time goes on, ever fewer places to go and things to do as more and more people close up gathering places and shelter in place. Our very idea of normal might change.
Remember the terrifying first half of Stephen King’s “The Stand” in which the world’s population was decimated by a flu-like illness? Remember “On the Beach,” where the last few people left alive after a nuclear war waited for the end in Australia?
I trust it won’t get that bad, that our health systems will be able to cope with the outbreak and that our officials will stop fighting long enough to fully utilize them.
It was just a few weeks ago that I wrote, “Somewhere between paralyzing panic and self-defeating indifference, there is a common sense approach that says, let’s wait and see and consider the evidence as it comes in.”
I still think that, which means I had nothing new to say and shouldn’t even have written about the subject. But that’s all there is in the news – so many other people are writing about it that I decided no one would read this column if it were about anything else.
If enough people do something utterly stupid ...
But whatever happens, I will have enough toilet paper.