Unprecedented ‘toilet paper crisis’ is striking Germany: Op-ed
As I write these lines on the Saturday just ahead of Easter, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has just finished a speech on public TV in prime time – something he normally does only at Christmas. Chancellor Angela Merkel also talked about the coronavirus crisis in a speech about a month ago – normally she only speaks to citizens every New Year’s Day. They both emphasized the seriousness of the situation and thanked the people for mostly following the restrictions that have been in place for about three weeks now. They also asked that people be patient, show solidarity and stay strong to face the virus. Even so, nothing is normal these days.
There are empty shelves in grocery and drug stores. I’ve never seen this in my life (or at least as far as I can remember). The reason is not that products are actually scarce – except disinfectant and face masks, of course (that is bad enough, as they are often missing even for medical staff and caregivers in retirement homes). The reason is that many people are obviously making so-called “Hamsterkäufe” (Hamster shopping) – that is, they are buying much more of a product than they really need.
The leader in that hamster segment is toilet paper: Some people must have so many rolls that they’ll last until the 22nd century, or at least until they have grandkids. In almost every store, there are signs that say you can only buy one of each product. If you take more, it’s taken away from your cart at the cash desk in some shops. That, however, has led to some chaotic scenes, where even the police have had to clear up the situation. In one case, a woman lay down on the conveyor belt by the cashier and screamed because she wanted to get three big packages of luxurious loo paper.
Prices for the typical most wanted “corona products” like toilet paper, hand soap or canned food have risen in some stores, even though manufacturers have ramped up production. Still, almost every time I go to the supermarket, I see toilet paper in the hands of every second customer. But I must confess that I also am tempted to buy just one more of those crisis products, even if I have enough at home.
Are others actually cleverer than me?
Perhaps it’s an unconscious feeling, but do other people somehow know more than me or are they more aware of a problem that I didn’t recognize? Are they preparing for a real crisis, with starvation and a lack of everything – not just the “unnecessary” shops closing? Are they preparing for a situation like war, where you have to stay at home to avoid being hit by the enemy. War?! If I listen to the speeches of prime ministers and presidents in other European countries, they really seem to have put themselves on a war footing, with words and metaphors that conjure up the image of us fighting man to man in the trenches. In Germany, political leaders at this point seem to be using more careful and almost soothing rhetoric. That‘s good, and it certainly might help to ensure that the panic – if there is panic – doesn’t get too big. But still, in truth, nothing is normal.
Inconsistent rules in different federal states
And there there is the restrictions on freedom of movement and meeting other people. That, like in many countries, is the most painful and absolutely unusual thing in these normally free societies. In the federal state where I live, Bavaria, authorities first introduced these restrictions on March 21. The other states followed two days later, with some discussions and conflicts between some state leaders – and with more or less different rules in many states, which can be quite confusing.
For example, I am only allowed to meet people from the same family, apartment or one-family house, or with my life partner, even when he lives somewhere else.
That means if you’re single, it’s a tough, lonesome time for you! OK, there is a telephone, social media, video calls and meetings – but especially for holidays like Easter, it’s not really the same. If I, for instance, were in another state like Hesse or North Rhine-Westphalia, where the number of infections is also very high (together with Bavaria and the other southern state, Baden-Württemberg, they are the most affected parts of Germany), I would be allowed to meet any other person, as long as it is only one person, family or house member.
And those aren’t the only inconsistencies: While in most states, hardware stores (for garden and construction materials) are open, they are closed in Bavaria. So if you need a part for your sink, you have to drive over the federal state border.
But although the queues in the open stores are sometimes very long and do not always adhere to social distancing rules, flower or other shops are closed just like the churches. What’s the logic behind it? It’s not always clear.
Time to read in the park?
But, I know, compared to many other countries, we actually don’t have too many reasons to complain. If I see the pictures of Paris, Italy or Spain, where nothing is permitted unless you’re leaving the house to buy food or engage in essential work, we seem to be living in paradise here. On recent sunny days, the amount of activity in the parks, river and green spaces in and around Munich make it almost seem like a normal spring day: People are doing lots of exercise like running and cycling, sitting on the banks of the River Isar (it’s only barbecue and groups that are not allowed) and lying on the grass, enjoying the sun or sitting on a bench and resting, looking at a smartphone or reading a newspaper or a book. Reading a book on a bench? Well, that is not okay, the police have announced over Twitter. That, unsurprisingly, led to controversy about people relaxing for more than a couple of minutes somewhere in a public space.
Finally, after pensioners, bookworms and families with babies complained about being driven away from park benches and fields by police, Bavaria’s interior minister intervened and announced that it was permissible to rest in the sun.
And in my opinion, that’s useful, because it’s important for the immune system to move outside, get some fresh air and move about. Perhaps – apart from the fact that we do quite a lot of testing here, have conducted several studies about how COVID-19 spreads and seem to still have a sufficient number of intensive care beds – that might be one of the reasons that Germany’s death rate (2,800 out of about 50,000 infected) is so low compared to the rest of the world.