BY NORBERT RUG
I find it amazing the way some people behave when it comes to hoarding. Let a blizzard approach or other disaster hit and we descend on stores, like the preverbal swarm of locusts, buying up more batteries, bottled water and non-perishable foods than we could use in a lifetime. We’re witnessing the same thing today as Americans self-quarantine against the coronavirus, and of all of the products that might be snatched up, the one that confuses me the most is toilet paper.
The coronavirus panic has only made things worse. We know exactly when a hurricane or blizzard season is approaching, and stores and supply chains can prepare. No one foresaw the season of corona. I have seen reports of panic buying and retail establishments being cleared out of toilet tissue in a matter of minutes. Stockpiling can also turn people against each other. Other shoppers could transform from fellow members of our community, into obstacles to survival and well-being. I have even seen videos of fist fights over a 6 pack of toilet paper on the internet. Places that still have toilet paper are limiting purchases to one or two per customer so they don’t run out as quickly.
When supply chains are vulnerable to spikes in demand, one person’s stockpiling can mean another person’s shortage. Hoarding in this crisis isn’t necessary and it is ethically immoral. Hoarders, by their actions, are denying access to the basic necessities for others.
People who have studied ethical actions in difficult circumstances have determined that when many people fail to act ethically, it appears that each person has less reason to act well. Call it the broken window effect. A vacant building can sit for years without being vandalized but let someone break one window and the rest will follow. This theory was proposed by social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling in 1982. They advanced this theory based on earlier research by Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo who argued that it didn’t matter how fluent a neighborhood is, one broken window would quickly lead to more windows being broken. One unrepaired broken window is a signal to others that nobody cares so breaking more windows is okay.
But why does the possibility of running out of toilet paper make us behave like animals? There seems to be comfort in knowing that it’s there. I too am guilty. The Rug household is on lockdown. No one in or no one out and the doors and windows are locked. Whenever someone offers to go shopping for us so we don’t have to go out, we always tell them to pick up some toilet paper if they can find any.
But hording takes on an even more sinister side. There are profiteers that are selling toilet paper for up to $5.00 a roll. But T.P. isn’t the only thing that these scammers are buying and trying to sell at an obscene profit.
People are taking advantage of shortages by stocking up on N95 face masks and rubber gloves. This contributes to a shortage of protective gear for health care workers that they need. This is not morally acceptable. Similarly, people are buying up hand sanitizer, not out of need but out of greed, to sell at premium rates. This depletes the supply of what has become an essential product. This too puts others in harm’s way unnecessarily.
Another thing I have noticed is a sudden lack of sterile water. I need this for health reasons and have had to resort to rationing this vital product. We are using less as recommended per treatment and not as frequently as I should be, trying to prevent us from running out
For people like my wife and I, who need rubber gloves, hand sanitizer and other medically required products, the profiteer’s’ “money above all” mentality puts many people at risk. There should be a special place in hell to those that try to make money off of other’s troubles.
Stores recently began indicating that they will not accept returns on some items that consumers have been stocking up on In response to the coronavirus pandemic. Toilet paper, paper towels, rice, water, sanitizing wipes and Lysol head up the list. I think this is great news! To all those people that bought these items to sell at loan shark profits and think if they can’t sell it they can just return it after this deadly disease is over should be stuck with what they bought. For anyone who has hoarded goods and then wants to return them, I say “too bad”. There’s nothing normal about what is going on and any retailer shouldn’t have to pay for these consumers behaving foolishly.
Lest you think I am an old man yelling at a cloud, I want to thank several heroes that have shown us the better side of America. Thank you to the people that are doing our shopping for us and even deliver meals to our back porch. Thank you to the medical professionals, truck drivers, restaurant workers and anyone else that is still working to help us get through these dire times.
Norb is a writer who raised his family in Lockport, NY.