Why toilet paper? A doctor tries to explain.

I roll in my bed, unable to sleep. I listen to BBC talk about the craziness that took over the world, preoccupied with this one question.

What question?

It’s not: “Why, Corona?” For that, I already have more answers than I want.

Scientists say that COVID-19 is an animal virus. It spread to humans from bats or pangolin due to close proximity in a seafood market, much like its older siblings SARS and MERS. Some well- informed people on Facebook told me that COVID-19 is biological warfare sent by the Chinese to bring down the US. My Trump supporter friends think it’s all a hoax invented by the Democrats and perpetuated by the media. Others think it’s a virus sent by Gaia to save the Earth to stop overpopulation, global warming, and overconsumption.

It’s not: “What’s going to happen?”

Better minds than mine have tackled the issue. They predicted the virus will peak, then stick around to join the other viruses plaguing us every winter: Flu A, B, and others I won’t get into. Other bright minds disagree.

Nothing to do with the markets. They already fell into disrepair, and they’ll take years to recover. Recover they will, eventually. It’s all good unless you need your money now. But, since you can’t go anywhere, can’t meet anyone, and can’t buy anything, you should be safe.

It’s not even about the U.S. elections. These days, the right and the left are so far apart that the middle vanished. Between “Make America Great Again” and “Make America Socialist,” the center is only there for the rest to attack. We’re not purist enough. Not white enough. Not feminist enough. Not angry enough. Not young enough. Not whatever enough. These days, compromise is a dirty word. But I digress.

The question that keeps me up at night is: Why toilet paper, out of all things?

You may think that’s funny, and maybe it is. But I’m serious. This is happening everywhere in the world, from the US to Japan, the UK, and Australia. Even Thailand. People clean out store shelves like the apocalypse is coming, for a disease with no digestive manifestations. As in, you won’t over-poop.

Why? Because people are stupid? I don’t think so. If so, they’d buy stocks, cruises, lottery tickets, or life insurance from companies that are about to go bust.

Some experts say that people need to feel in control. That makes sense. But then, why TP? Why not toothpaste? Chocolate? Pizza? Ice-cream? Wine? Heating fuel? Gasoline? Canned goods? All gone, of course, now that the TP is gone.

For full disclosure, let me tell you: I’m an expert in stockpiling. I’ve lived in Communist Romania. Our phone would ring at 6 a.m.: “They’re bringing toilet paper this afternoon. The corner of Republicii with Armata Rosie. I’ll hold you a place. Half an hour, no more. They’ll rip me apart.”

Other times it was sugar; lemons; pork trotters – we called them “sneakers”; laundry detergent. If you think you’re an expert in stockpiling, I can out-expert you most days of the week. I take Mondays off. I hate them. That’s a sore remnant from my ER days.

Back to my point: why toilet paper? That’s what I came up with. Feel free to add.

1. It serves a basic need. People poop and pee. In our society, keeping clean is a must. Our cave-dwelling ancestors pooped too, even without toilet paper. I know that for a fact. Chinese started using paper for this purpose in the 6th century. The west took its time: Joseph Gayetty invented toilet paper in 1857, but splinter-free toilet paper didn’t come until 1935.

2. People need to feel in control. Buying TP checks off one thing off a long, scary list.

3. Toilet paper takes a lot of room. You feel like you got a lot for your money. One pack will fill a cart, and make a dent on that shelf. Things like tuna, coffee, or string cheese won’t look like much.

4. It’s affordable. A family can stock up on six months of toilet paper for $40. Think about what it costs to stock up on six months of wine, ice-cream, steaks, or gas.

5. It doesn’t need refrigeration. That’s good, since the fridge is already full.

6. It has so many uses. Cleaning your privates, but also blowing your nose, cleaning after the dog, cleaning the kid’s paintbrushes, or using it as napkins, like many Thai people do.

7. It doesn’t go bad. If this pandemic ever goes away, you can still use it next year.

8. If you have to be stuck inside for months, you’d rather be stuck with companions sporting clean assets.

9. You can trade it. A roll of TP may be worth a case of beer or a gallon of ice-cream these days.

10. It’s almost gone since everybody has stocked up on it. You don’t want to be the only one using newspaper. Let alone having your kids share that with their friends. So, you buy that last pack.

11. We’re social creatures. We’re inclined to do the same thing the others do. What if they know something you don’t? You yield to the wisdom of the crowd, to keep safe.

So, there are many good reasons for intelligent, decent people to fight for toilet paper. They try to do what’s best for their loved ones in these scary times of extreme uncertainty. Most of them would trade you. Even give you some if you really need it.

Remember: We, humans,  survived through millennia without toilet paper. And, believe it or not, some still do. Many people use sprays to clean themselves – you could make do with a vessel of warm water and soap. You’ll end up cleaner. If you have more than you need, give away a roll or two to somebody in need. It’ll feel good. Plus, you never know when they’ll come back and return the favor with something you really, really need. Like blood, or bone marrow, or Netflix.

Rada Jones is an emergency physician and can be reached at her self-titled site, RadaJonesMD, and on Twitter @jonesrada. She is the author of Stay Away From My ER, and other fun bits of wisdomMercy, and Overdose.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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