What Toilet Paper Shortages Can Tell Us About Social Progress During a Global Pandemic

The novel Coronavirus has left empty shelves in stores and markets around the world. Canned food, water, and non-perishable items among the first to go. However, no one expected that the shelves would also be wiped clean of toilet paper, an inexpensive and normally readily available product. From America to Australia, people have had trouble finding toilet paper in the midst of the pandemic. Prior to the outbreak, most people did not think about toilet paper on a daily basis; it can cause distress when you come to the end of the roll, or if it is a different ply than what you are used to, but in general it is taken for granted. While many people around the world do opt for toilet paper alternatives such as a bidet, for toilet paper users, the product offers a comfortable and clean means to facilitate good hygiene. And yet, what happens when a simple and inexpensive product becomes incredibly hard to find during a global pandemic? Does it create a black market? Do communities come together to share supplies? Are alternatives made out of other paper products?

Shelves where toilet paper would normally be stocked are vacant in stores.

While old books and newsprint have been not repurposed as a toilet paper alternative, this crisis has shown that wealth does not always indicate lived experience (even the richest individuals have had trouble finding toilet paper) and that community matters (trusting your neighbors to not hoard toilet paper and appropriately social distance in an inclusive and kind way is imperative). This shortage of toilet paper is specifically attributable, at least in part, to the lack of social solidarity in many communities. Regardless of wealth and ignoring your place in line at the market, toilet paper has become an equalizer: something everyone needs and no one can get. 

Within the Social Progress Imperative, neither the American intern (me) or the British CEO were immune from toilet paper shortages. Regardless of wealth, connections, or access, the supply chains and distribution plans for the product simply did not hold up at the start of lockdowns that were predicted to last months. Shortages of toilet paper were an issue in every hemisphere and while initially they were attributed to hoarding, the Financial Times also suggests that the run on toilet paper rolls highlights supply chain issues and the complex market interactions (many of which are social and noneconomic) which contribute changes in access to resources. When everything is locked down, disregarding ability to pay, it is difficult to get commodities, such as toilet paper, that can have a tremendous impact on lived experience. Accordingly, to accurately measure the day to day experience we have to look beyond wealth (both individual and nation-wide) to outcome based measures of progress: this is the methodology of the Social Progress Index Framework. 

The 2019 Social Progress Index scorecard for the United States of America.

In addition to the supply chain issues and the need to go beyond traditional economic measures of success, the toilet paper shortages also highlight the value of community. While America is generally a global superpower and ranks 8th on GDP worldwide, it ranks 26th on the Social Progress Index and performs especially poorly on the dimension of Opportunity, which takes into account hard-to-quantify things such as inclusiveness and personal rights. And yet, now more than ever these are the things that matter. When you are at the grocery trolling the isles for toilet paper, you have to trust that your fellow shoppers are taking the necessary precautions to keep everyone safe from the novel coronavirus. When you only buy one package of toilet paper instead of seven, you have to trust that everyone else will do the same. Community and inclusion are incredibly important components of lived experience and the way that toilet paper is shared—either in the checkout line at supermarkets or across the street between neighbors like a cup of sugar—or not shared during this pandemic is indicative of this. 

On the 2019 global Social Progress Index America does underperform on the component of Inclusiveness by more than one point compared to economic peers with a score of 58.78 points (ranking 40th). One Washington Post article shared the experience of a cashier who saw people purchasing massive quantities of toilet paper without regard for others. However, the same cashier also saw many customers share their hoard with other shoppers, saying things such as “we’re all in this together,” and “I guess there is enough to go around.” Now more than ever it is imperative that we think of more than ourselves, beyond the traditional economic indicators that have historically defined success and come together to build back better in the wake of these unprecedented times. 

The shortage of toilet paper is just one of the many strange phenomena that have defied traditional economic measurement while having a tangible impact on lived experience. To learn about other ways in which Covid-19 has influenced lived experience, specifically the burdens placed on childcare and housing, and to view the Coronavirus-specific resources that have been compiled by the Social Progress Imperative team, visit socialprogress.org.

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