A man looks for toilet paper at an almost empty shelf in a supermarket of Medellin in Colombia. Picture: JOAQUIN SARMIENTO/AFP
A man looks for toilet paper at an almost empty shelf in a supermarket of Medellin in Colombia. Picture: JOAQUIN SARMIENTO/AFP

When President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the national state of disaster, it gave the government powers it would not otherwise have. This is generally seen as A Good Thing, as it makes it much easier to deploy the requisite resources to deal with the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, which could involve state equipment, stores, facilities and vehicles.

Seasoned corruption watchers — every single sentient South African, in other words — will, however, raise an eyebrow at the fact that regulations for emergency procurement procedures can be issued. This means the standard procurement rules are suspended, and the requirement to obtain multiple quotes doesn’t hold any more. (Of course, cynics will translate this as simply meaning that the requirement to obtain fake inflated quotes falls away, letting corrupt state officials leap right in with their cousin’s, husband’s or childhood friend’s rigged quote.)

Learning about the undertaking from the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) to sanitise trains, one person’s response was to imagine a news headline a few years from now: "How R30m Prasa Sanitiser Budget Ended up at the Durban July."

It’s not just the government we’re going to have to be vigilant about. There’s opportunity for businesspeople to take advantage as well, and we’re already seeing some activity in this area.

Your common or garden criminal is also leaping at the opportunity, and hospital group Netcare has had to issue a warning that "criminals are going to homes in various areas, claiming to be from Netcare or Netcare 911, and saying they are assisting the department of health with door-to-door screening for Covid-19".

There’s a history of businesspeople as well as politicians taking advantage of great disasters. When companies start going bankrupt, someone will be there to benefit. But what’s more worrying is that a growth in populism is also a potential reaction to economic collapse.

Picture: 123RF/andriano
Picture: 123RF/andriano

The ultimate end of the Weimar Republic, for example (and actual historians might want to avert their eyes at this point), was the rise of populist parties that took advantage of economic turmoil. And we all know where that led.

Weimar, Germany’s first republic, was based on the world’s most progressive constitution at the time — which is arguably what you could say about the founding myth of democratic SA. And, as with Weimar, SA at times seems like a "democracy without democrats", with all parties at times showing antipathy to our constitution.

We need to ensure that no party takes advantage of the coming travails to push populist rhetoric.

But we’re not in the business of cynicism this week. This is a week for marvelling at how, in our fellow humans, the impulse to do good is eternally at war with the impulse to be an idiot.

So, to those of you who avidly consume the news: be prepared for a host of uplifting stories about people being nice to each other. But also be prepared to fight to the death with one of the Woolworths Endtimers for the last roll of toilet paper on the shelves.

These Endtimers are a new breed. They’re the ones who will rock up at the Pearly Gates when the Rapture comes and demand to speak to the manager. I know God is supposed to be omniscient, but not even an all-knowing god can fully comprehend the rage of the entitled consumer who believes he or she has been slighted.

Speaking of toilet paper (and the whole country is): how is it possible that this has become the metaphor for the end of civilisation as we know it?

There are clues in the actual product, of course. First of all, the luxury paper sold at Woolworths is pretty creepy. Who wants to wipe their bum on happy, gambolling puppies? Cat lovers, I suppose.

Picture: 123RF/nipapornnan
Picture: 123RF/nipapornnan

There’s a history of this sort of awkward juxtaposition: the first commercially produced toilet paper, according to the magazine Mental Floss, consisted of "aloe-infused sheets of manila hemp dispensed from Kleenex-like boxes. They were invented in 1857 by a New York entrepreneur named Joseph Gayetty, who claimed his sheets prevented haemorrhoids. Gayetty was so proud of his therapeutic bathroom paper that he had his name printed on each sheet."

I’m not sure what Freudians would make of that, but I do know that the toilet paper hoarders are also defecating on their own good names.

The great French satirist François Rabelais, in The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, has Gargantua criticise the effectiveness of toilet paper: "Who his foul tail with paper wipes, Shall at his ballocks leave some chips."

He instead recommends the use of "the neck of a goose, that is well downed". (This might be a great way to get back at the morning hadedas … No, sorry, that’s a crazy thought.)

One assumes that the "paper wipes" tested by Gargantua were nothing like the soft, velvety stuff we can buy in supermarkets. But they probably were like the cheap toilet paper that most people can afford.

There’s inequality writ large on the chubby faces of the babies that adorn one of the popular brands. Not just because only rich people can afford to hoard, but also because we can measure privilege by ply.

We can also use toilet paper as a litmus test to measure inequality by region. In 2018, average annual per capita consumption of toilet paper around the globe was not more than 5.2kg. But there were huge regional differences: as you’d expect, North America was highest, at almost 26kg per person, with Africa at less than 1kg per person.

What it means:

Covid-19 takes us into uncharted territory where populists, crooks and loo paper makers will thrive

One frightening thought is that the government sale of alcohol can also be suspended or limited under a state of disaster. This does not seem to fit with the spirit of conviviality that will be needed to deal with the crisis. And make no mistake, we’re going to need all the good cheer we can muster to make things work.

Even the National Disaster Management Centre acknowledges that we’re going to rely more on people’s better natures than on strict laws.

Its guideline for "Classification of a Disaster and the Declaration of a State of Disaster" states: "Given the broad range of aspects listed … for which regulations can be issued, it must be appreciated that this guideline cannot provide guidance … to achieve such a broad objective.

"Disaster management centres are urged to establish cordial relations with legislative drafters and plan for the eventuality to prepare the requisite regulations."

When you’re writing the expectation of cordial relations into an official document as a solution, you know you’re living in extraordinary times.

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