COVID-19 and the Toilet Paper Hoarding: Dealing with Waste in a Time of Crisis

By Samwel Moses Ntapanda

In the wake of Corona (COVID-19) pandemic, we have witnessed the extent to which our world is globalised, fragile and as Thomas Hylland Eriksen puts it, “overheated” (Eriksen, 2016). Things are moving faster than at any time in the existence of human kind. Any shock, be it economic, political or health like the COVID -19 is easily felt around the world. The COVID-19 outbreak started possibly around December 2019 in the Wuhan region of China. By March 1st2020, 41 countries had confirmed cases of COVID-19. This shows the level of interconnection the world is currently experiencing. However, it was not only the virus that spread rapidly, with it, news, information, and panic dispersed instantaneously. The reactions of national governments were to send out proper information to their citizens about the illness and measures to take, close their borders, monitor and quarantine those arriving from abroad. In the age of digital information, live statistics on the spread and fatalities of the virus is accessible at the fingertips. There is no need to go out of residencies to find information. Every information, fake news too, can be accessed from home where people are quarantined. However, with minimal outside contact and media that lives on-off of apocalyptic narratives, panic flourished. People took to the internet where critical stances have yet to be developed. This confusion, fear, misinformation, and a pack mentality lead to seemingly irrational actions such as toilet paper hoarding.

Panic in the face of shit!

The unexpected response in the face of the corona-crisis is the “toilet paper trepidation”. Videos circulated showing long queues, and sometimes fights over toilet paper packs in supermarkets. People hoarded as much toilet paper as they could after the news about the countries’ lockdown was announced. The question is, why toilet paper?

During her fieldwork in Mongolia, Elizabeth Edgaro observed that a distinct relationship exists between Mongolians and defecates. Toilet paper is not a “prerequisite of life”(Edgaro, n.d.) Elizabeth argues. In the West, toilet paper is produced as a means of cleaning oneself after defecating. In other cultures, using toilet paper is actually regarded as disgusting and impure such as in Mongolia, where people use water instead of paper tissue. But in the West, we need toilet paper. This has revealed itself during the corona crisis. Toilet paper has been around for a little bit more than a hundred years. It is a culturalised Western invention that helps us avoid touching our own poop. Toilet paper and bathroom interiors are designed to alienate ourselves from our own bodily waste. Once wiped and flushed away, it goes in the drain never to be seen again. I wish to turn around Elizabeth’s suggestion. We don’t assume toilet paper’s existence. Instead, toilet paper has seized the vacuum between us and our poop to its own value of existence(Edgaro, n.d.).

“The toilet paper trepidation” is just a panic in the face of shit as stated by Gay Hawkins. He argues that, in the maintenance of the modern body, waste is a secluded matter that needs to be wiped out from a civilised scenery (Hawkins & Muecke, 2003). However, fore to this point, an intimate relationship exists between the body and (to be) waste. Waste hardly reproduces itself; instead, it is a product of actions or inactions that happen prior to the state of waste. For the body to produce shit, one has to eat, and the digestion has to take place. The body will carry digested foods around in the stomach. Until then, the substance in the stomach is not waste, it is hidden in the body in a limbo state. As soon as it is defecated, it becomes waste, contagious and impure (Ibid). Waste has an intrinsic ability to pull other objects and bodies around it into its assimilado. Toilet paper is the best assimillee, white and clean, symbolising purity. Due to its features, toilet paper has managed to take a central role of purifying “western” bodies (Douglas, 2003). This role is assumed by the “ability” of toilet paper to wipe “clean” our behinds, and its plasticity to mummify itself to fit in the sewage system and disappear.

In a conversation with a colleague, she said: “If I think about the toilet paper hoarding and why people behave like this, I would rather see it as a turn towards focusing on our most basic needs, which is eating of course, but closely related to that, taking care of our bodily wastes.” Her argument gives an excellent point of analysis to think about our relationship with waste. In his recent talk on Coronavirus, Thomas Hylland Eriksen argues that the virus is slowing down the pace of life. The global speed of interconnectedness is halted as airlines cancel flights and borders close, and in this moment of stagnation, we can think of other ways of living (2020). Wait! We can’t live without toilet papers, rush, rush to the shops, grab as much as you can, what are you gonna wipe your bum with, water? Newspapers? Leaves? Wooden sticks? No, I need toilet paper. Like my friend argued, this could be interpreted as a way to secure our basic needs in a time when we are unsure about access to resources. Another way of looking at it could be as a way of clinging to culturalised practices that make us feel safe when things are changing around us. In contrast to Eriksen’s hope that we might reinvent a new way of living, the hoarding of toilet paper is a desperate attempt to hold on to culturalised ways of dealing with our defecates. 

The toilet paper crisis is not about the scarcity or fear of not cleaning our bumps; instead, it is an expression of a feeling of powerlessness over the virus and an attempt to take back control in a way that might seem irrational. When it “is unclear as to what one ought to believe-when the minimal standards for clarity in decision-making are not met” (Seeman, 1959), they will try to do any or some things to make themselves feel that they are in control of the situation. 

The feeling of powerlessness leads to self-estrangement, a condition where a person sees and feels oneself as an alien. The COVID-19 lockdown has revealed that feeling of self-estrangement as a society. The hoarding of toilet paper shows how our consummate lifestyle has disconnected us from the very basic human needs. In our modern society, products are produced and consumed massively. We have lost the idea of what we need to survive in case of an Armageddon. For sure toilet paper is not on the list, that is why toilet paper is a good thing to think around.

Waste: out of sight

The story of toilet paper takes us back to our relationship with garbage. Civilised humans do not like to be in close contact with anything considered waste. We have created infrastructures to hide our discards. What toilet paper offers is the way to get our bodily waste out of our sight as fast as possible without touching it directly. Other discards stay with us for a bit longer. I am thinking of places we store different types of waste produced in the household. We have garbage cans, but before we drop the garbage in, we seal the garbage in a bag. Garbage cans have lids, just to make sure the garbage is out of sight. Our kitchen waste is hidden under the sink. Our outdoor garbage containers are placed in designated spaces, usually at the margins of our residencies, accessible by the discarders and the waste-collectors. Our sewage water is underground. We don’t even know where our defecates go, and what is done with our waste when it leaves our property. Out of sight, and not our responsibility. We turn to the toilet paper because of its agency, to swipe shit from our bums, and run it into the tunnels to somewhere far away. Out of our sight.


To sum up, our relationship with waste is complicated and exciting. I think if we want to understand ourselves better, we should try to understand our relationship with our discards.   Waste produce double alienation. We are disconnected from our own waste (out of sight), and waste alienates us from others; those regarded impure, dirty, and those who endanger our purity (by buying more toilet packs than us). The fear of (wasted body) contamination, impurity, and illness has revealed itself in our efforts to cleanse ourselves. Toilet paper symbolises purity. it makes us feel that we are taking decisive measures not to contract the “virus”. 

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