Will there be a new normal?

The other crisis: Toilet paper

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Why are we hoarding it when experts agree that rinsing with water is more sanitary and environmentally sound? — New York Times

The panic buying of toilet paper as people started stocking piling or over-stocking as the Covid-19 pandemic began to roll, leaving empty shelves in supermarkets around the world – that went viral on social media – would have been matter for humour if not ridicule for others who normally use water to cleanse themselves, had it not been for the fact that the phenomenon assumed the proportion of another crisis. In fact, physical violence broke out in several supermarkets, again seen courtesy viral videos, as shoppers came to blows over the last remaining rolls, or even snatching from other shoppers nearby who were lining up to pay.

‘Experts are cautioning us that even when the pandemic has reached its peak across the world, the dying down period until we are deemed to be safe is likely to be protracted, months if not well unto next year, That is because there is a possibility of re-surge.’ Photo – newsinfo.inquirer.net


These incidents and reflections they prompted led to the publication of an article by journalist Kate Murphy in the New York Times of April 3, 2020, titled ‘Stop Using Toilet Paper’ with a sub-headlineWhy are we hoarding it when experts agree that rinsing with water is more sanitary and environmentally sound?

Loads of articles have been written since the pandemic began about whether when it is over we will enter into a ‘new normal’ world, by design or by default. Some idea of what the ‘new normal’ would include would be, for example, more working from home, less travelling for conferences and more videoconferencing among a host of other changes related to the workplace. There are expectations about reinforcing the re-discovered social relationships, family togetherness and balanced use of time at home spread between attending to domestic chores and cooking (innovations!) and leisure, time spent with children and overseeing their online schooling and other activities.

With the realization of the importance of being in good physical condition and maintaining sanity during the confinement in the home, there are recommendations galore for the practice of yoga and meditation. Both of these have already been increasingly adopted in several countries the world over, but whether they will receive a boost as part of the anticipated ‘new normal’ remains to be seen.

However, since it is an overwhelmingly serious and mortal health threat that has triggered the remise en question of the way that humanity has been doing things especially in the last few decades, the critical issue quickly became one of our survival – which it is now realized hinges on our sanitary habits. And therefore the recommendations and guidelines being drummed into our heads about handshakes, hugs, exchanges of objects touched by others’ hands, proximity among individuals, the simple and vital acts of breathing and speaking, touching one’s face, and personal cleanliness.

Experts are cautioning us that even when the pandemic has reached its peak across the world, the dying down period until we are deemed to be safe is likely to be protracted, months if not well unto next year, That is because there is a possibility of re-surge and because the search for treatment and for a preventive vaccine will be equally long. And, further, based on the recent past history of epidemics and pandemics, we must expect that another new one may surface in another few years.

The message is clear: we must make the new sanitary habits part of our ‘new normal’. The one aspect that has not been emphasized is cleaning ourselves after opening our bowels. Unsafe and unhygienic practices which involve use of toilet paper and rougher substitutes such as newspapers or magazines can lead to significant irritation in the bottoms, as a colorectal surgeon states in the article. ‘Most of the time it has to do with overzealous cleaning — wiping too vigorously with toilet paper or using wipes, which often contain harsh fragrances and chemicals’, he says.

In addition, ‘you can get seriously ill from diseases transmitted via feces. Cholera, hepatitis, and E. coli and urinary tract infections are prime examples’. But more worryingly, ‘Recent studies have found coronavirus in faeces as well’.

This is what leads these specialists to opine that ‘toilet paper is an antiquated technology that infectious disease and colorectal specialists say is neither efficient nor hygienic’, and experts to agree that rinsing yourself with water is infinitely more sanitary and environmentally sound’. Further, ‘you’re just never going to get as clean as rinsing with water’.

The introduction of wet wipes, originally intended for babies, and subsequently ‘marketed aggressively to adults’ was supposed to address the irritation problem. But it led to an even more concerning issue: ‘the wipes have begun to coalesce with grease in city sewer systems to form blockages the size of airliners’. As Jeeves of PG Wodehouse fame would have said, ‘It boggles the imagination’. As it is, environmentalists have been raising alarm about deforestation associated with paper – of any kind – use.

Experts are therefore agreed that ‘rinsing yourself with water is infinitely more sanitary and environmentally sound’.

A matter that deserves our most serious consideration. Unless we want another pandemic to make us tremble again – remembering that each new one becomes deadlier. The choice lies with us.


* Published in print edition on 10 April 2020

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