The great supermarket stampede

 
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A few months ago most of us were blindsided when we entered our local supermarket, trudged down the toilet paper aisle and were confronted with extended shelves of emptiness. Somewhat disappointed and definitely a little bit anxious (especially if we were running low on the soft, white goodness), we began to wonder how long it would be before we sighted toilet paper again.

In a Signs of the Times’ YouTube  clip, I shared a theory of why countries around the world were experiencing toilet paper shortages—it had almost nothing to do with three-ply supply. Yes, there was some panic buying when Covid-19 was initially gaining traction in media reports. And yes, a resulting minority of people panic-bought staple products clean off the shelves, including toilet paper, pasta and bread.

The core issue arose when the media picked up on the first toilet paper shortages in the few stores where this was an issue. That’s when extended panic buying started, as people, prompted by sensationalist reporting, began to feel insecure about the availability of a product they had taken for granted in the comfort of cubicles all around the country. How long would this last? Some customers were filmed dragging trolleys full of toilet paper through the checkout. There were reports of aggressive verbal stoushes in some stores. A woman was alleged to have pulled out a knife during a moment of tension at Parramatta Woolworths in Sydney.

And then Australian prime minister Scott Morrison famously lectured panic-buyers to “just stop it. . . . It’s ridiculous. It’s un-Australian. And it must stop!” Leading toilet paper company Kleenex chimed in with their own piece of assurance, posting a selfie featuring a factory worker from their base in Millicent, South Australia, surrounded by endless pallets of toilet paper. “Australia, don’t panic!” the caption read. “As you can see we won’t be running out anytime soon.”

All because we felt we were going to lose a product that had been comfortably available for so long. People online (correctly) argued that toilet paper was useless without food, and those products weren’t seeing a surge in demand at the same level as toilet paper.

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It was a bizarre trend indeed, and totally unnecessary. One of my friends, a Coles store manager, was completely dumbfounded by customers’ behaviour. He shared with me how nothing could have predicted the spike in sales and how busy his store was. The stats back up his claim; according to the ABC, grocery sales rose by 22.4 per cent following the outbreak. He also told me his store had hired extra security to guard toilet paper.

In the following weeks, the issue was exacerbated. Anyone who did manage to get their hands on toilet paper would make a point of it on social media, as if they had discovered gold! Social commentators insisted people set aside selfishness and remember the elderly and disadvantaged, rather than purchasing extra products for themselves.

Buried treasure

The whole situation is reminiscent of a story Jesus once told about a master giving charge of some bags of gold to his servants (see Matthew 25:14–30). One servant received five bags, another received two and the final servant received just one bag of gold. What follows is a lesson in investment: “The man who received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more” (verse 16). The second also committed to investing what he had been given—he doubled his money, too. Meanwhile, the third servant, who only had one bag, decided to bury it and hide it. When the master returned from a long journey and asked about his gold, the first two servants were able to report that their investments had paid dividends—as a reward they were entrusted with further treasures. But the third servant who had hoarded his bag of gold was instead given an earful: “You wicked, lazy servant! . . . You should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest” (verses 26 and 27).

This ancient story has some real-world implications. In the few months when toilet paper was “gold”, there existed either those who hoarded it fearfully—exhibiting the “bury the gold mentality”—and those who used it as an investment—what I’d interpret to be empathy and care for the less fortunate. Case in point: two Queensland children who, according to 9now, used their own pocket money to buy toilet paper and deliver it to pensioners in their community.

These children, perhaps unwittingly, fulfilled another of Jesus’ sayings: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (verse 41).

Before you go

As Covid-19 infection rates declined, essential products made a comeback on supermarket shelves. Pasta reappeared, as did tissues and then, eventually, toilet paper. In contrast to the hordes of people legging it to the toilet paper aisle a few weeks earlier, now people would walk past large stacks of the precious commodity, seemingly ignoring its existence.

During its peak season of rarity, toilet paper was considered a prize. But after it became freely available, the perceived value of the product plummeted and the humble toilet paper roll no longer occupied public consciousness . . . until it did again during Victoria’s June/July Covid spike.

In those moments when people can make a difference, we see the true nature of those in our community. Jesus is clear about who gains the ultimate reward: “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them” (verse 29)—something worth considering next time one sits enthroned in a small room and reaches for the good ol’ white roll.

 

Daniel Kuberek manages Signs of the Times’ social media presence and website <signsofthetimes.org.au> where this article also appears.