No more toilet paper: clearly Australia’s worst nightmare.
No more toilet paper: clearly Australia’s worst nightmare.

What set off the great Australian toilet paper freak-out?

A mate of mine was at his local Bunnings this week buying some handyman stuff for a job he was working on.

There was a chap in the queue in front of him who had loaded his trolley entirely with gas masks. It was literally overflowing with the things. My mate pegged off a sneaky shot of him on his iPhone - it's 2020, that's what you do - and had a discreet squizz over his shoulder as he paid for the masks. They cost him $4100.

You could safely assume the fellow intended to sell the masks back home in China for a profit. Either that or he is especially safety conscious and has several hundred children, even though there is no scientific evidence that these masks will make a sniff of difference when the coronavirus comes knocking.

Masks you can understand, up to a point, but the great toilet paper panic of 2020 is easily one of the weirdest things Australia has ever witnessed. Unlike the US, with its survivalist subculture driven by people who fear the government and believe the last days are at hand, Australians are a pretty well-adjusted lot who think doomsday prepping is something you laugh about while watching that show on Foxtel.

Disturbing footage showed shoppers in Woolworths fighting over toilet rolls. Picture: Twitter
Disturbing footage showed shoppers in Woolworths fighting over toilet rolls. Picture: Twitter

How did our normally sane nation lose its collective mind over the need to stockpile dunny paper?

The great toilet paper buy-up appears to have happened in two phases. The first was baseless panic, starting late last week and into the weekend, when a handful of people started emptying the shelves at Costco and buying those big bundles of bog roll from the major supermarket chains.

By the middle of this week, it had entered phase two, a strange act of mass mimicry, fuelled by the sense that if everyone else was buying the toilet paper, maybe we should buy some too. We became a nation of wildebeest, our herd galloping along as per usual, when suddenly a few wildebeest decided to change direction and the rest of us changed with them.

I went to my local supermarket on Wednesday afternoon and, save for a small number of packs of two or four toilet rolls, every big pack of toilet paper had gone. The entire shelf was stripped bare. All the staff were laughing about it. The checkout assistant told me one lady had come in and bought more than $70 worth, 5 x 24-roll packets or 120 rolls, enough to keep her and her family pooping happily into 2021.

It was the same across the rest of the country, prompting the terrifically droll comment from the nation's chief medical officer Brendan Murphy that filling your house with toilet rolls "probably isn't a proportionate or sensible thing to do at this time."

Empty shelves that were once stocked with toilet paper. Picture: AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi
Empty shelves that were once stocked with toilet paper. Picture: AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi

Indeed it isn't. It's a full-blown act of national psychosis, which reached its zenith on Wednesday afternoon with NSW police being called to cordon off the toilet roll aisle at a Sydney supermarket amid reports a woman had allegedly armed herself with a knife to get her hands on some three-ply.

There have been any number of experts on crowd psychology popping up this week to offer their informed comments about herd mentality and mob behaviour at times of crisis, be the crisis real or perceived.

The past few days in Australia have been a more civilised reworking of the LA riots and other social disturbances where people who have never broken the law will grab a six-pack or even a TV set because everyone else is doing it, too.

It is worth considering the manner in which Australians have been responding to this perceived threat versus the manner in which it's unfolded in China.

An old university mate of mine called Simon has been living for the past few years in Wuhan, where he teaches at a university. He and his Chinese-born wife and daughter have spent much of the past five weeks cooped up in their 20th floor apartment. There have been times when they have been allowed out to visit the supermarket to stock up on essentials, and he tells me the process has been orderly and calm. He jokingly said the biggest challenge he and his wife faced was crawling up the walls and arguing over his taste in music, as he's a jazz nut who loves playing his old LPs, which are grating on his missus.

My mate says the entire experience in Wuhan has been a collectivist one, as befits this vast communist nation.

Compare that with the great Aussie toilet paper freak-out, and it's been all rugged individualism here, every man for himself and woman for herself, as we trip over each other to grab the one thing we clearly don't need in such ludicrously vast quantities in the event of being quarantined.

Silly Solly's in Robina with their stock of toilet paper. Picture: Jerad Williams
Silly Solly's in Robina with their stock of toilet paper. Picture: Jerad Williams

"I ain't coming back to Australia," Simon told me in his latest email from Wuhan this week. "Too damn dangerous. And what's worse, I won't be able to keep my backside clean."

The great Spanish film maker Luis Buñuel directed a brilliant movie in the early 1960s called The Exterminating Angel, a pointed satire on the haplessness of the middle class in the absence of hired help. At the beginning of a very la-di-dah dinner party at a Mexico City mansion, all the servants and waiters and cooks are suddenly possessed by this strange force that compels them to quit their jobs on the spot and wander off into the night, leaving the bourgeois guests to fend for themselves. The guests become trapped for days in the house, and gradually all the manners and mores of middle class life are broken down. Guests are urinating in vases, smashing holes in the walls to drink from water pipes, a married man and a married woman have adulterous sex in a broom cupboard. In the absence of their working class props these people degenerate into animalistic behaviour.

In our own weird way we have done the same thing this week too, and I still really can't work out why.

All I know is that I've got 27 toilet rolls, and if the authorities come for them, they can pry them from my cold, dead hands.