It’s hard to fully grasp the reality of the COVID-19 crisis until you visit the grocery store. In particular, the aisle formerly known to contain toilet paper.
As many of us know, throngs of worried citizens preparing for a coronavirus-inspired end of days have bought up every available roll of toilet paper. I was keen to see if the hoarders were alive and well in Winnipeg.
Standing in an aisle at the Superstore on St. Anne’s Road early Saturday morning, I regret to say that I could not find a single TP hoarder, largely because there was no TP left to hoard. As I took a picture of the barren shelves, I shared a glance and a chuckle with a fellow shopper: what a bunch of idiots, we both said without saying it. The chuckling did not last long, however.
Even though I know that toilet paper is not a particularly relevant commodity in the fight against COVID-19, and that one medium-large package (16 rolls) is enough to keep my family of four satisfied for about a month, and that Canada’s major TP producers have said they will have enough supply to restock shelves in the coming days, I began to worry about how much we had at home.
And that’s how it starts.
The rush on toilet paper is an excellent metaphor for the spread of an infectious disease; all it takes is a few isolated cases and before long, we’re all infected. All it takes is a single story about someone cleaning out a store in suburban Phoenix or Rome or Osaka, Japan, and we’re speeding to the local Walmart as if our lives depend on acquiring the last rolls of Charmin.
Even though hoarding is a reprehensible practice, it has one positive aspect: it’s evidence that some of us understand the magnitude of the threat even if we don’t have a clue about how to prepare. Unfortunately, when it comes to other aspects of our life, there is a lot less caution and a lot more denial. This past Sunday is an excellent case in point.
At Sunday’s COVID-19 briefing, Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, confirmed that the number of Manitobans with COVID-19 had now reached seven, with three more cases detected overnight. He continued to stress two main messages: wash your hands and keep your distance from others; and do not make non-essential trips out of the country. This is, after all, a virus that hops around continents in commercial airliners.
Even with Roussin’s caution hanging in the air, 26 international flights departed Richardson International Airport on Sunday; 14 destined for the U.S. and another 12 headed to Mexico, Central America and Cuba, otherwise known as sun destinations. As the Free Press reported Sunday, the number of people checking in for those flights was down significantly. But there were still people packed and ready to go on the belief that the COVID-19 situation is being "overblown" or "exaggerated."
That brings up another concern: if you’re brazen enough to ignore all public health advice to the contrary and spend two weeks at an all-inclusive resort in Varadero, can we count on you to spend the recommended 14 days in self-isolation when you return home? Again, Roussin was pretty adamant that if you are still going to travel internationally, you should really take yourself out of circulation for two weeks, the typical incubation period for COVID-19.
Will sun-seeking Manitobans follow that advice once they return home? We can find the answer in the vacant shelves of the toilet paper aisle and in phenomena like the anti-vaccination movement.
After convincing themselves there is some sort of global conspiracy to cripple children, large numbers of people have stopped getting their kids vaccinated. As a result, outbreaks of mostly eradicated diseases, including polio and measles, have been documented in developed countries. The problem reveals our collective inability to accept practical advice from the people most qualified to give it.
The biggest threat we face right now are people such as the sunseekers who ignore the pleadings of public health officials to make simple sacrifices. If we heeded their advice, fewer people would become infected, fewer people would die and fewer things would need to be closed. But we just don’t. When faced with a crisis, we cannot summon enough common sense to do the right thing. And a lack of common sense is extremely contagious.
We are all affected by the actions of the habitually nonsensical. I can guarantee you that if you’re forced to spend an hour in line just to gain access to a Costco — a reality directly attributable to hoarding — even the most rational folks will have used that time to ready themselves for a knife-fight to get a shot at the last jumbo bag of frozen vegetable dumplings.
No one can completely avoid giving into the fear and panic; for most of us, it’s not a matter of when we’ll panic, but whether we can limit the panic enough to keep stupidity to a minimum.
To wit: when I got through the checkout line at Superstore, I winced a bit when I saw that I had spent about $150 more than a normal grocery trip. As I pushed my overstuffed cart to my car, I made myself the promise that most of us make when we give in to irrational fear.
I promised to be better next time.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.