Corona in Germany: Hording and Authoritarianism

By 26 March 2020, what the world calls “Coronavirus” and the USA calls “Covid-19” had affected 197 countries and territories with almost 20,000 deaths globally. While 20,000 looks like rather an insignificant number given the 7.8 billion people on planet earth, a highly reputable source – worldometer – noted on that day the ranking of deaths as follows: Italy: 7,500; Spain: 3,700; China: 3,300; Iran: 2,100; France 3,00; USA 950; UK 470; the Netherlands: 360; and Germany: 210. Despite being known to have authoritarian personalities, follow their government supposedly based on strict toilet training as infants and a seemingly uncontrollable urge to inspect their own bowl movements, Germans were showing some very common European behaviors during the corona virus crisis. While Bavaria has closed its borders, Germany’s most populated state of North Rhine-Westphalia has started to fine people. Meeting more than two other people in public incurs a fine of € 200.-; having a public BBQ: € 200.- and any gathering of more then ten people: a fine or up to five years imprisonment.

In Germany, otherwise sensible people are hoarding toilet paper, supermarket customers vied for the last rolls. The panic purchases of such items in the corona crisis are bizarre and suggest something more than prudent preparations for a lengthy lock-down period. In Australia, supermarket customers ripped toilet paper rolls out of each other’s hands, screamed at each other, wrestled with grocery-clerks and tripped over the debris like ants scurrying back into their nests. In New Zealand, check-out attendants noted that the largest proportion of such panic buyers were suburban, middle-class women in their early forties. To understand what is at stake here, we have to look beyond the logical assessment of people willing to empty the shelves with food and toilet articles they would be unable to use up in months or a year, while the elderly, the poor and those still working at essential services, such as nurses, were left with empty shelves—and no food for their families. Something much more profound is involved.

As Sigmund Freud pointed out, along with dreams, jokes were the royal road to understanding the unconscious. In one cartoon, middle-class shoppers wear the toilet roles like Rolex watches on their wrists, thus not just conflating time with sanitary material, but with fecal matter people dear: the filth from inside themselves they are afraid of looking at. In another witty take on the panic, professionals offer the GPS coordinates of stores that still stock the toilet paper, as though they were coveted treasures, purchasable, of course, against PayPal payment. In Rabelais’ rollicking late medieval satire Gargantua and Pantagruel, there is a whole chapter devoted to different kinds of “arse-wipe”, long lists of everything from goosenecks to rare manuscripts, thus transforming the very essence of civilized life into ways to wipe away shit. In the UK and Australia, mechanical grip-machines are seen with desperate punters fishing for the precious bum-swabs instead of stuffed animals, and in Hong Kong there has even been a reputed armed robbery of a toilet paper truck. Why this universal obsession? Why toilet paper rather than spam, tuna fish or pickled herring?

Under hashtags such as #Klopapierkrise, #Klopapiergate or even #ToiletPaperApocalypse, people from all over the world are currently posting on social media the strangest excesses of hording purchases in the wake of the Corona crisis: hoarding toilet paper, which some people buy in the same way to prepare for the pandemic. Is this an embodiment of the old German saying: “Life is like a chicken-coop ladder with many steps, each covered in shit”?

Even “Germany’s Next Super Model” star Heidi Klum has since publicly criticized the consumer behavior of her fellow human beings. She said, “the toilet paper crisis confirms that we have more a****holes than we thought”. Meanwhile, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte Mark Rutte mocked anyone engaged in such an obsessive act during a supermarket visit, by saying, “We have so much toilet paper, we can shit for ten years”.

As bizarre as the phenomenon may be, it is not new. Germany looks to the USA to see how panic buying is created. As early as 1973, the US experienced a toilet paper crisis, with weeks of hording purchases and empty store shelves. But it wasn’t a virus at the time–it was a late-night television show. On the evening of 19 December 1973, in the midst of the first oil price crisis, talk-master Johnny Carson appeared in front of the cameras on his popular “Tonight Show” and warned the audience of millions: “It’s not just gasoline that’s running out. Do you know what’s disappearing from supermarket shelves? Toilet paper!” The studio audience burst into laughter, but Carson added, “Now you’re laughing! There is an acute shortage of toilet paper in the United States.

Was this a foreshadowing of the endless attacks by Donald Trump against fake news, with journalists the enemy of the nation? Or was this a preliminary revelation that America produces more shit than anyone else in the world, and such dreck is embodied by the current incumbent in the White House? Some experts say that the currency in the media and in the congress is lies, but other students of the phenomenon say it is bullshit: a constant splattering of diarrhea—and there is simply not enough toilet paper to wipe it away. Now are being inundated by this crap in an endless stream of anti-scientific and very dangerous official utterances.

Because millions of Americans apparently believed Johnny Carson almost fifty years ago – and manifest their unconscious fears in panic buying all the toilet rolls available in the supermarkets. As a result, many shelves were empty within hours, which seemed to confirm the impression suggested in the joke that toilet paper was actually running out, and that fueled another run on sanitary arse-wipe. Like an aggressive hamster madly racing on its stationary wheel, the panic persisted for several months. In February 1974, the New York Times wrote about toilet paper shortages in some regions of the United States as a result of “abnormal buying and hoarding”.

In fact, Carson’s gag had a real source that kept re-triggering the phenomenon. Harold Vernon Froehlich, a Republican in U.S. House of Representatives from Wisconsin, issued a press release on 11 December 1973, in which he complained that the US government had not pre-ordered enough toilet paper for public servants for the next few months. In a rather pompous tone, Froehlich declared (with no self-consciousness of his own jocular name), he declared that “within months, the US could face a serious shortage of toilet paper”. He hoped that rationing would not occur, because such a cul-de-sac (bottom of the intestinal tract) was “nothing to laugh about. It’s a problem that will affect every American”.

O dear, what fools these mortals be! Nevertheless, out of the mouths (or arse-holes) of fools and babes, there is often much truth. Fear of the foul smelling and bacteria-laden excrement coming out of one’s own body signals a deep disgust with what one is, or is constructed (digested) by the body politic. The people wrestling over shopping –carts full of toilet paper are unconsciously protesting at what an absurd, unequal and authoritarian society has made them become.

Even when German sports fields were already closed last week, the plopp-plopp-plopp-plopp was heard from afar when the leather ball was kicked, along with the calls of the footballers. Tags, sometimes even at night. Germany’s Forsa survey of these cris-du-coeur (or rather sounds of anal evacuation) provided the figure: 61% of 18- to 29-year-olds did not consider it necessary to change their behavior during the pandemic. And an enigmatic 17% of over-60s also leave everything the same, even though they are part of the group of people who are at greatest risk of mortality. Is this stupidity? No more so than it is the blindness of people who normally don’t read newspapers or listen to the news and cannot process the warnings given out for their own good. They are not exactly scared shitless, but fear the reality they will have to face up to unless they can wipe it away quickly.

Another recent survey found that more than half of German citizens are only a little not very worried about the Corona pandemic. People are overwhelmed from an unbreakable stream of news about the disaster that this virus is causing. This sort of pessimism, anxiety, and naivety does not appear due to a lack of information. There are other psychological defense mechanisms behind it. For example, there is displacement: “Corona is just a kind of flu” and then there is the denial: “China is far away”. Is this just the latest manifestation of the notorious excremental vision of the Teutonic race?

But now that no one can deny that the virus is rampant in Germany, a third psychological mechanism is working, namely division. The warnings of virologists and politicians are cognitively understood, but the emotions and fears that actually accompany understanding this information are split off and pushed into the unconscious, or not felt at all—except as a sense of discomfort, being filthy. This psychological division process means that the actually very disturbing events remain meaningless for one’s own actions. Quick, bring me a fresh roll of toilet paper to clean my bottom: then my mommy will love me again.

If the number of infected people and especially the dead increases, when the television shows pictures of Italian military trucks driving around coffins, so that if nothing can be displaced, denied or split off, then another defense mechanism comes along. Evil is projected onto an enemy from the outside or at least to the supposedly disorderly, dirty and shitty people in the southern regions of Italy—Naples, Sicily, anywhere but here. In the USA, President Donald Trump, who has mocked, denied and split the pandemic at home, is a textbook example of this: he speaks of the “China virus” or the “foreign virus”. He tells people to relax and wait for him, the calm genius, to clean up the mess: change their nappies (diapers) for them. If New York City, that den of iniquity (where people don’t believe, like or vote for him), needs 30,000 ventilators, he sends them 400. Let them die in their own shit.

Perhaps those young people who continue to meet their friends, kick soccer balls, and have “Corona Parties“Corona Parties”, do not even displace or deny the pandemic. Conceivably, they have no fear: only old foggies die. They simply do not realize that there is a difference between the danger to their life, which is relatively low, and the great danger to the health system posed by their unbridled everyday selfishness. Their infantile behavior manifests their inability to control their own bowel movements.

Many younger people feel on the safe side when it comes to their own physical integrity, and statistically they are – up to a certain point. The awareness of their physical vitality gives them a sense of inviolability or immunity –perhaps even immortality. The idea of getting infected does not cause them fear because they are convinced that they do not need medical help. The relatively small residual risk, which remains for the healthy younger ones, is perhaps only a delusion. Maybe the risk is also be experienced by some of them as a thrill, as a desire for fear, provided they will survive. To expose one another to danger, against all reason and against the advice of local authorities, gives a sense of grandiosity, a sense of autonomy, and poses a great danger to everyone else.

Overriding orders, recommendations, and rules also gives the arrogant youths (for not all young people are so filled with their own excrement that they worship on fecal-book platforms) the feeling of being independent. This also makes it difficult to address these immature people, to exhort them to take on their responsibility for the elderly, for their parents and grandparents, to ask them for appropriate, moral behavior. This may be the first time anyone has ever asked them to consider others, or to understand what social morality and responsibility are. After all, freedom and fun consist precisely of doing something forbidden. The typical German gesture of the raised index finger can even amplify the selfish behavior. Up yours!

We are acutely aware of such behaviors from smoking. People who smoke have ruthlessly defended their claim to autonomy, even though they endangered the health of those who are condemned to passive smoking. In the end, it was only the legal ban in Germany on smoking in restaurants, businesses and public buildings that forced them to change their behavior. Once introduced, however, the smoking ban was accepted and followed surprisingly quickly. It can be assumed that stricter contact restrictions and restrictions on freedom of movement in the Corona pandemic are followed in the same way. Unlike smoking, the change has to come not in a matter of ten to twenty years, but right now, today.

Smoking bans and the requirement to maintain social distance are structurally very similar. The ban on smoking not only prevented a dangerous behavior. This also led to a significant shift in attitude. Suddenly, it was “not cool” to smoke. Those who walk through empty streets these days, or through deserted parks, observe that most people have stayed at home. These Germans accept the imperative of spatial distance that pandemic experts and politicians impose on them. The smoking ban was preceded by years of public discussions. There is no time for that now. Restrictions and the subsequent social pressure of the community will push social acceptance. The vast majority of the 61% of those will abide the officially announced rules. What some 18- to 29-year-olds think is funny and rebellious, the vast majority of 18- to 29-year-olds will find it embarrassing. The joke will be on the anti-social minority. A very dark and morbid joke.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of 550 publications include a book on the AfD. Norman Simms is a retired academic who lives in New Zealand and continues to write articles and books, as well as editing an online journal.