The toilet paper pandemic of 2020

If the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 reminds you of Y2K, a time of ridiculous panic and worst-case scenario prepping that amounted to nothing, you are in luck. I can provide the connection.

My friend told of a woman who had stocked up on toilet paper for Y2K. "Apparently, she just now used up the last of it," she said. "Can you imagine what 20 years worth of toilet paper looks like?"

They must have had to build an extra quonset.

All I could think of was it was an ironic time to run out of toilet paper, what with all the stores around the country without toilet paper as people freak out over a respiratory virus by stocking up on bathroom tissue. Twenty years of bathroom security, running out just when you couldn't buy any.

Leaders Shouldn't Scare People

Ebola! Marburg! Zika! SARS! MERS! Swine flu! Wuhan!

Yesterday the first verified case of Covid-19 was announced in North Dakota. By today, my inbox was innudated with emails from state agencies, organizations, businesses -- anyone who ever had my email -- telling me what they were cancelling or doing to respond to this pandemic. God forbid you don't have an official Covid-19 response and instead choose to go on about your business.

I'm not a person prone to panic. Do you know what getting all of those emails made me feel like doing?

Running to the store and clearing out the shelves.


You're not informing them. You're not providing awareness to them. You're not leading them. You're scaring them.

That's not leadership, that's covering your butt.

Maybe you think "I don't want someone scolding my department or crabbing about us online for not putting out our own Covid-19 response so we're going to send one too." What you are doing is creating a tsunami of fear.

After what I've seen today in my inbox and online, I don't feel more like washing my hands. I don't feel like being more responsible. I feel like hoarding supplies and never coming out of my house and watching the nation's economy tank while I peer out my window in my hazmat suit. Is that what you wanted?

If public safety is your concern, feeding a panic to the point where police have to be placed at Costco stores to keep someone from bludgeoning another over toilet paper and bleach is a serious fail. It doesn't matter if the people demand a certain tenor of response. It doesn't matter if the click-bait hungry press is pressing you for more statements or goading you into worst-case scenario fantasticry.

You lead with an eye to what's best for people, not with an eye to what will placate the people. It doesn't matter if people are bitching online about events that weren't cancelled or actions that weren't taken. You don't have to play the media's game, or assuage a fear the media created.

This is about doing what's best in the big picture.

If you lead by instilling fear, you aren't a leader.

The Experiential vs. The Big Picture

Every disease, virus, and bacteria is personal if you or a family member gets it. Let me state that up front. I understand that.

Images and reports out of China, Italy, and Iran seem terrifying, but is that the full picture? That's only what we're being shown. What aren't we seeing?

If we're going to look at the larger picture, which is what leaders should be looking at when making policies and restrictions that affect huge populations, Covid-19 doesn't have the deadly numbers that the yearly flu has. It doesn't come close to H1N1 (which was deadly for the young, while Covid-19 appears to be deadlier to the elderly), which the press didn't give this level of coverage to back in 2009. Let's look at some numbers from the H1N1 pandemic in 2009-2010:

Some 18,450 people worldwide are confirmed to have died from H1N1 infections, including many pregnant women and young people. But WHO says that it will take at least a year after the pandemic ends to determine the true death toll, which is likely to be much higher.

Seasonal flu kills an estimated 500,000 people a year, 90 percent of them frail elderly people, according to the WHO. The 1957 and 1968 pandemics killed about 2 million and 1 million people, respectively, it says.

That was a seriously infections bug, apparently, with the final numbers being about 20% of people in the world infected:

The WHO’s official data show 18,500 people were reported killed by the H1N1 flu. But a study published in The Lancet last year said the actual death toll may have been up to 15 times higher at more than 280,000.

For those who lose a loved one, lose hours at work, or spend time in a hospital, those numbers don't matter. Your personal experience trumps all, and you want to go online and tell the world how awful (or not awful) it was.

Read the personal stories.

Empathize with those hurting.

But understand that you are hearing one very narrow part of the story. Personal human-interest stories have a place, but we HAVE TO LOOK AT THE NUMBERS.

Here's the thing with experiential stories: they can spur empathy and panic, but they are ALWAYS based on one limited view. That's one of the points I made when I wrote the book about the pipeline protest, how these individual personal stories of angst were assumed to be the complete picture. It's the old story of three blindfolded people touching an elephant, one at the tail, one at the leg, and one at the tusk. They are all have a legitimate experience and describe that, but their description will be woefully inadequate to understand the whole animal.

What's the whole animal with Covid-19?

So far, it appears to not be as infectious or devestating as variants of the flu, or at least not as infectious as H1N1. The numbers aren't easy to pin down because some folks likely had it and didn't realize it or never reported their condition, and it's likely that China didn't report all of the numbers accurately. China's cases are dropping, but they also forced quarantines that most countries wouldn't do. Smoking rates in China are high, and so that would have an impact on underlying health conditions. Some countries may not be doing much at reporting it at all. And because some people experience mild symptoms, they may never report or test, thereby throwing off the numbers and fatality rates and not giving us an accurate picture. From what is known right now, it appears some people have a serious and critical bout, a few dying, while others describe it as mild. Underlying health issues and age play a role. Death rates vary based on these factors. Major concern is overwhelming hospital capacity. Some don't agree on the infectiousness of it, and the veracity of the testing throwing out positives. Some suggest it was in the U.S. far earlier without panic.

What does that larger animal tell us?

We need to take heightened measures to keep our elderly and immunocompromised safe. If you have large populations of those who are known to be susceptible, be targeted in how you protect them. We should always be washing our hands and practicing good hygiene. We should be constantly pursuing good health. We shouldn't panic.

If you have to cancel every event ever, and lockdown entire towns, kill the economy, wipe out businesses, cripply industries, shut down education -- are you going to do that with the flu next season, which kills more than Covid-19 appears to be likely to do? Are you going to do that every time there's a disease? Why didn't you do this for H1N1? What we've really demonstrated is it just takes a hint of virus to shut an entire nation down.

Why Freak About Covid-19?

I stumbled into a Reddit thread in which, after 20 minutes of reading, could feel my chest tightening with fear. People were describing forcing friends and family to remove all outer clothing (no, not just coats -- the whole shebang) before coming in the house, and other extreme measures you wouldn't expect to see unless it was Ebola or SARS. I put my phone down and picked up a murder mystery book, and felt much more relaxed in just five minutes.

You know what's deadly? Stress hormones.

And stress hormones have to be skyrocketing with the media literally providing moment-by-moment infected counts and deaths on interactive maps heavily promoted online and on TV. Do we do that with the flu? Why not? If we did, would panic arise? Is that why we don't do it? Why are we doing it with Covid-19?

Why does our response vary so much for something with much better numbers than H1N1 (so far)?
  1. We don't know the final numbers yet; we're in the midst. So it's a scary gray area. We can see trends and extrapolation, but we don't know for sure.
  2. We don't trust those experienced in the medical or epidemiology fields (including those who don't agree with each other). A rampant distrust of modern medicine, doctors, and government is its own epidemic, and that leads to a paranoia fed online and prompting frightening speculation which, in turn, prompts things like a rush on toilet paper I guess. You don't have to blindly trust experts. You can find information. But you shouldn't automatically distrust them either, because the information you're finding is from...another expert.
  3. We don't trust numbers, trends, and data from past pandemics that those experts try to interpret for us. We are biased, or easily made biased, for a particular interpretation. If that medical expert has something shockingly different to say, we dismiss them because it isn't mainstream and because Snopes or Google tell us it's false.
  4. We are captive to media, whether mainstream or off-stream. And since they are captive to our eyeballs, which are equated with dollars, they will feed and reaffirm our biggest fears because we can't look away.
  5. Too many people are able to make money off of various fears, particularly health and apocalyptic scares. Someone always has the miracle cure, the elixir, the perfect 20-year bomb shelter. They see this as a chance to make some money off of fearful people. There's no fear a bank account can't cure.
I put more stock in what a medical professional says (and they don't all agree with each other, mind you) than a politician looking to score political points or someone online with something to sell to me. They spent years and thousands of dollars learning what they know, and they care about keeping people healthy and alive. That's the reason they do what they do. When a nurse or doctor says "I am not as concerned about Covid-19 than I am the flu" I shouldn't dismiss them. When they are concerned about it, we also shouldn't dismiss them.

But we are in a weird culture.

We seem to take pride in dismissing and ignoring experts and professionals that don't fit our ideology. I daresay we want an expert pilot flying us in an airplane, so I don't know why we don't hold to this in other areas of life.

So, we don't trust our medical professionals. In fact, we're so used to them being painted the bad guy, for some of you it might be shocking that I'd even suggest you trust them. We use the few examples of crooked doctors and greedy companies as the reason for dismissing the entire profession, as if every one of them was out for evil. We decide that since too many people are taking prescriptions (I don't disagree), then the whole thing is corrupt since the doctors are the ones prescribing. Depending on your ideological group, you see "opposing"' medical professionals as either corrupt or crackpot, disregarding they have the same training and desire to help people.

Do you know who wants a pill to fix their problem? The patient. As I already said, leaders should do what is best for the people (in this case, the patient) and not what the whining demands. Before we discard the entire medical profession, we need to own up to our own fault in getting where we are today.

I watched an interview about Covid-19, and in it, the doctor mentioned the Duning-Kruger effect. I've written about that before on this blog. The basic idea is that people who know the least about a topic actually think they are quite knowledgeable, even expert. People who are actual trained experts tend to struggle with imposter syndrome, which is where they feel like they don't know nearly enough. This odd situation is because when you have actual extensive training in a field, you start to realize how vast that field is, how many moving parts there are in it, and you understand your own limitations in comparison. Whereas, those who know very little about a field tend to think the little bit they know is pretty extensive. This is especially true on social media where we choose to silo ourselves and only get certain kinds of information that we already agree with.

All I can do is read a variety of articles from various sources and look at the numbers and weigh what experts and professionals say. I can interpret the text and the graphs and know the limited bit that I know about personal hygiene and infectious diseases, based on what I learned growing up and on through college. I wish I could say the press does me a solid here (which is what they should be doing), but because they don't ("let's argue about what to call the virus"), I have to step back from the hysteria, the big headlines, the tragic human interest stories, and force myself to look at the big picture.

  1. Admit the reality: I'm not medically trained, i.e. I'm blindfolded. 
  2. Read from several sources: Read not just what I want to read, i.e. ask the guy holding the tail and the guy holding the tusk for more information.
  3. Remind myself of the reality: I'm still not medically trained, even after reading those sources, i.e. I'm still blindfolded, but with more information. Some of that information is still experiential in nature.
  4. Read what trained experts are saying: What do medical professionals have to say? i.e. ask the animal trainer what this critter actually is. Not all agree on this virus. Some are suggesting there's a testing problem, that it isn't the monster we think it is.
  5. Read between the lines: Some experts are trapped in political cages, i.e. is the elephant tied up, and if so, I don't know what it would be like if it were running
  6. Back away and think: Think about it all logically based on both current and historical information, patterns, and without fear motivations, i.e. step back, tug off the blindfold, and see the animal for what it is

I don't fool myself into thinking that I can understand complex medical studies like a doctor or a statistician could. I don't want to be the person on Twitter saying that Michael Bloomberg could have given everyone in the country $1 million because my math is rudimentary.

I also want to look at patterns. Things such as how election years tend to have a disease outbreak (but non-election years also have their fair share, too). How media response doesn't equate to viral veracity, and why they might be responding that way. How people respond to the media response. Who gets blamed. How every conspiracy theory can find a home in every outbreak. How we've had three pandemics (at least) in the 20th century, and now two in the 21st century (i.e. they aren't unheard of).

Our leaders who are tasked to be in charge now should not be spreading fear and what-ifs and worst-case scenarios, but should be looking at this scientifically, numerically, and logically. While their heart should go out to people, their decisions shouldn't be knee-jerk based on experiential stories, but the whole animal. Shutting down flights and locking down borders is maybe wise. Some closures are maybe wise.

But if a victim's sad story causes you to make bad laws or take bad action (see Colgan Air crash and how it was responsible for laws that made things worse and fixed nothing), you've done nothing for the memory of that victim but made things worse for the rest. We're about to kill our country's economy for something some medical experts aren't worried about or suggest different interpretations of.

Believers In Christ Should Be A Light

I've unfollowed a fair number of Christian Facebook pages over this becaues they were putting out all kinds of strange dire predictions and fear-mongering. What you'd expect would not be gleeful gloating about the last days or warnings of vast pestilence and bottomed-out economies -- an almost excitement at proclaiming the worst possible outcome wrapped in fear and doom and gloom and how everything is bad -- but the hope of Jesus Christ.

Alas, not so. I've found more reassurance from non-Christian doctors and Rush Limbaugh (who pointed out that the three positives from this whole mess is that we learned controlled borders are valuable, homeschooling and distance education can work to the dismay of huge universities, and that we shouldn't have most of our medicine and vital supplies made in Communist China) than most believers. Right interpretation (if that's what it is) is a fail if it doesn't point to Christ. I am not thrilled with the chaos and whatever else, even if it's a sign of something believers are excited about.

In trying to lightly (but in all seriousness) tell people not to worry, I've been made to feel almost guilty for not worrying more, as if I didn't take the possibility of death seriously.

I do take that seriously. If I didn't, I wouldn't have become a follower of Christ. The death rate in this life is 100%, and once you're dead, it's too late to choose Jesus. So I take it pretty seriously.

"Oh, Julie, that's a Sunday school answer. You need to buy 20 years worth of toilet paper and some ammo."

As I've told my friend, somewhere you have to temper having adequate short-term emergency supplies on hand to getting carried away and being willing to fight to the death with your neighbor over a can of beans.

Yes, I'm aware that Joseph filled the storehouses to prepare for seven years of famine in response to a specific dream to a specific ruler in a specific time, but I'm also aware that as the Israelites wanderd in the wilderness, God provided their food for the day and they were asked to take no more than what they'd need that day and to trust Him to provide. So if we're going to take one of these out of context and make it the justification for various behavior, which one?

Who knows. Maybe I'll get the corona. Maybe someone I care about will. It could be traumatic. I might have a personal story to tell. But this doesn't change the animal.

I'm pretty annoyed about the toilet paper. That's just gross, people.

I'm pretty annoyed at the media, who again have proven they can be counted on to court the Chicken Little vote.

I'm pretty annoyed that we can't behave wisely and self-limit without the government stronghandedly being forced to lock us down.

I'm pretty annoyed at how the media and leadership are doing a great job of inoculating people not against viruses, but against taking them seriously. Overreaction is insulin resistance; you stop responding normally and will require ever more hysteria to be persuaded to take action.

When the weather gets hot and sunny and Covid-19 begins to wane by fall (hopefully), I hope you enjoy your toilet paper.

UPDATE March 13, 2020: The state leaders held a press conference announcing a state emergency but clamly discussing what they would and wouldn't be doing. Again, I was impressed. Addressing panic, facts, and fears directly. Kudos! Much better than what is happening on social media.