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How to survive a pandemic without toilet paper - (3/31/2020)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro 

Herbie came into the pharmacy looking grim. “I can’t believe that happened,” Herbie said to the pharmacist. “It’s getting to be a cold world,” the pharmacist responded empathetically. “My wallet was right next to it, but they didn’t touch that.” “It’s a sign of the times, unfortunately,” continued the pharmacist. “I mean to break into a man’s car and steal his toilet paper is about as low as you can get.” “Yes, and I fought hard for those last six rolls!” Herbie lamented. “Now what am I going to do? The markets are completely out. I was thinking of going from bar to bar and steal it from the men’s room, but those places are all closed.” 

Why are people hoarding toilet paper? If we cannot get steak, we can buy chicken. If we cannot find the canned peaches we like, then the canned pears will do. However, toilet paper is primal. We have used it multiple times a day since we were on the potty chair. It is what keeps us civilized. While we know deep down that everybody poops, we can keep some normalcy in our lives if we know we are reasonably clean “down there.” 

Nevertheless, this time is different. If it is a blizzard a-comin or a hurricane on the way, we know that a dozen or so rolls should suffice. Yet with this virus and travel bans and the lack of an endpoint, we may need to hunker down for months. Knowing you have 36 rolls in your possession can keep you from going over the edge. The phenomenon of panic-buying can have a snowball effect. If one is in Costco and sees several shoppers with 50 rolls in their basket, hey now, you are going to want some too! The more sensible reaction should be to get laundry detergent, soap, first aid supplies, and prescription medications stocked up for the duration. Panicked people are not always sensible.   

What did people do before toilet paper was invented? Cowboys in the Wild West used the sides of their hands to clean themselves, preferably near a running stream. This awakening was after realizing that a cactus was not a good substitute. Back in the day, aristocrats wiped themselves with lace or wool (which the maid got to launder), while the hoi polloi cleaned themselves with rags, wood shavings, grass, leaves, snow, ferns, pine cones, fruit skins, corncobs, or the Sears catalog. In the day of Julius Caesar, a sponge on a stick was all the rage and, after use, plunked into a bucket of vinegar.

In 1857, an American, Joseph Gayetty, invented the first toilet paper. He manufactured aloe-infused sections of Manila hemp, and the inventor inscribed his name on every sheet. Toilet paper as we know it today really took off in the 1930s. Ask your grandfather what they did before then. And thanks to the people who like counting these things, we know that the average American uses 50 pounds of TP a year. 

Yes, we have evolved beyond squatting behind the garage. But if you had to, why not? Who would know? You would. And that would bring you shame. Some would contend that those who walk out of Walmart with a s**tload of Charmin should be mortified because others will be forced to do without. In reality, they are triumphant.  

At that point, Herbie told the pharmacist that he had to leave to get his car after his theft. Then Herbie  asked, "Before I leave, can I use the restroom?" "Sure," the pharmacist said. "But, I am counting the rolls of toilet paper before you leave!" 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.com.


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