Not everyone uses toilet paper
You probably think everybody’s buying toilet paper, and across the Western world, you’d be right. A dramatic supermarket fight over TP between two Australian women went viral. When the Dutch prime minister visited a grocery store, he reassured shoppers there was sufficient supply so “we can all poop for 10 years.” (Perhaps more worrisome, a 2015 survey found the Dutch were the least likely among Europeans to wash their hands after using the restroom; Bosnians and Turks fared much better.) A Lebanese friend cited a local saying: “We lived 20 years of civil war and never once were we out of toilet paper.”
The great divide occurs around the use of bidets. As a Jordanian smugly told me, the TP hoarders are those who don’t use them. An Azerbaijani friend said his compatriots “tend to use water.” An amused Bosnian pointed out that toilet paper takes up storage space and people could simply shower. And an American posted on Facebook that her husband presciently requested a bidet for Christmas; sales have recently increased tenfold. Across Africa, expats told me many people there either cannot afford or culturally do not use toilet paper.
Cologne and vodka make good sanitizers
As hand sanitizer and other cleaning products are in short supply everywhere, friends shared the desperate measures and creative thinking from their countries. In the UK, people have ripped hand sanitizer dispensers off the walls in doctors’ offices and have stolen bottles from hospitals. In the Czech Republic, a friend saw a doctor on television dismiss concerns about a lack of disinfectant by citing the example of Moravia, where people make their own alcohol from apricots and plums. In Turkey, people are relying on a longtime tradition: Kolonya, a cologne whose alcohol to essential oils ratio can reach 80-20, is found in nearly every Turkish household and ceremonially poured into the palm of visitors as a sanitizer. In Istanbul, one man offered it to riders on the subway. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko joked that vodka is not only a good hand sanitizer but it could also help kill the virus. The situation is better in South Korea, where news reports cite bottles of hand sanitizers in elevators and people dressed in costumes at subway entrances reminding the public to wash their hands.
While Westerners are being schooled in proper hand-washing techniques, expat friends in African countries previously afflicted with Ebola said people there are already well-informed about proper sanitation measures. For example, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo there are hand-washing stations (described as “little plastic tanks with chlorinated water and a faucet”) in every restaurant, store, business and airport. In Niger, the government has been continuing public safety campaigns and sending daily communications with doctors’ phone numbers for people if they suspect they are sick.
Masks serve multiple purposes
In the West, people are mostly avoiding masks, heeding doctors’ pleas to save them for health workers. But they are ubiquitous in Asia, though many already wore them to address air pollution. An Indian friend reported that a temple covered its idols with masks to protect them. In Lebanon, a friend said masks are serving a new purpose: Many women get botox in their lips every few months, and now some are wearing masks and postponing their fillers.
Panic-buying is widespread, but ingredients vary
Germans, who have a word for everything, describe panic shopping as “Hamsterkauf”— mindless spending like a hamster storing food in its cheeks. Almost everyone across the Western world is stockpiling pasta. Spaniards are panic-buying toilet paper and jamón, with a meme showing someone slicing a loo roll as if it were meat. An expat in Kyrgyzstan heard radio commentators encouraging people to buy sugar and flour. Moldovans are purchasing garlic, with the cost recently tripling. Afghans are stockpiling rice, wheat and cooking oil, as prices skyrocket. Feta cheese sales are high in Greece. Serbs are buying rakija (a fruit brandy), while Finns are investing in multiliter boxed wines. In the Netherlands, people panicked after the government announced plans to close “coffee shops” and formed long lines to stock up on weed.
Some shoppers are driven by memories of previous periods of deprivation. In Lithuania, a friend saw Soviet echoes in purchases of buckwheat and other grain for making porridges, pasta and potatoes. In Denmark, people are buying rye bread and yeast. (A Danish friend explained that a 1998 labor strike led to yeast hoarding when locals anticipated shops closing; although a shortage occurred then, producers anticipated the coming crisis and ensured sufficient capacity.)
Several Bosnian expats, who survived a devastating war when the capital was under siege for 1,425 days, said the experience left a “huge imprint.” Their families in Sarajevo began storing food weeks ago, while others are planting more vegetables than usual. An Iraqi friend said decades of political instability and price uncertainty have long led people to store enough food in their houses to last at least a month. He recalled his father in the 1980s buying 50lb bags of rice and an entire sheep to keep in the freezer. Amid coronavirus, his mother is supplementing their existing stockpile with extra toothpaste and batteries for flashlights. A German friend with a Vietnamese wife said his in-laws call daily with advice about preparing for difficult situations and with recommendations for natural treatments. Closer to home, a friend’s sister-in-law in Puerto Rico said, “People have been buying supplies as if they are getting ready for a hurricane.”
There is less concern elsewhere about food availability. Friends in stricken Italy and China reported a gradual reduction in panic-buying as supply chains continue to function. Similarly, an Iranian friend said shoppers there were relatively relaxed, given memories of sufficient provisions during past wars. An expat in Vietnam reported that neighborhoods under quarantine near her get daily rations of rice, eggs, protein and cooking oil. In Africa, people have generally limited means to stockpile, which a Senegalese friend described as a “very Western concept.”
Others are more worried about their long-term economic survival. Ukraine and Georgia experienced extreme deprivation in the 1990s, which a local friend said created a survivor mentality; although people are not hoarding commodities, many are gathering as much hard currency as possible. An Azerbaijani friend described calm at the stores but panic at the banks, as people want to retrieve dollars in anticipation of a currency devaluation amid declining oil prices.
The French are bad at social distancing; the Finns excel at it
People around the world are losing access to their traditional gathering places, which have closed as a health precaution: hookah bars in the Middle East, karaoke bars in Asia and banyas (public saunas) in Central Asia. In Greece, the government launched a communications campaign with #menoume_spiti (stay at home). Spaniards have promoted their own self-quarantines, with #quedateencasa (stay at home) and #yomequedoencasa (I’m staying home). After seeing online images of Dubliners in packed bars last Saturday, #closethepubs started trending in Ireland; the government ordered them to close the following day. Despite the “she’ll be right mate” attitude of Australians, a friend there said her sports-obsessed compatriots are stressed by the cancellation of participatory and televised events.
Several governments are taking extreme steps to enforce social distancing rules. In Italy, residents are only allowed to leave home for work, food, health or emergencies. They must carry an “auto-certification” form whenever they head outside, which can be downloaded from the Interior Ministry website, that describes their origin and destination. Failure to comply could result in jail time and a $230 fine. France is similarly requiring residents to carry documentation justifying “essential” reasons for being outside their homes, while the German state of Bavaria is imposing $27,000 fines if people violate new lockdown measures. In Serbia, the government deployed the army to its borders and the streets of its capital to enforce the new state of emergency, including the requirement that those older than 70 remain home. In some countries, critics have accused governments of violating privacy rights. The Israeli government’s security agency is using cellphone data to track those under quarantine. The South Korean government is using technology to trace the movements of infected people before they were diagnosed, which it then publishes online so others can determine if their paths crossed.
Responses to these restrictions vary. Finns, who are renowned for their introversion, joke about having long wanted mandatory social distancing. As families prepare for a period of seclusion, a Finnish friend said people are purchasing a classic board game that coincidentally happens to be called Korona (the Finnish spelling of the virus). Likewise, an English friend joked that his country’s “main contribution to disease control is the social isolation we learn from childhood. It only breaks down in queues. It’s OK to talk in queues. But definitely not in lifts or on the tube. And certainly not over breakfast.” Others find it harder to adapt. The French are continuing their signature “la bise” greeting, with one survey reporting 66 percent of respondents greeted friends with cheek kisses in recent days. In Argentina, an expat reported that locals are struggling to stop sharing mate, the national tealike drink.
You’ve probably seen the beautiful scenes of quarantined Italians, singing together from their balconies. In Madrid, sequestered residents gathered on their terraces Saturday evening to cheer their health workers. In Colombia, “ciclovía culture” (biking) remains strong. In Germany, the American dating show Love is Blind ranks third on Netflix and stores report shortages of barbells. Sadly, the Eurovision song contest has been canceled. A new genre of reality show has emerged in China: livestreams of celebrities and regular people singing, cooking and exercising at home. Yet an expat in Kazakhstan predicted increasing frustration there, as the government has long throttled the internet, limiting access to YouTube, Twitter and WhatsApp, in the evenings when the president’s rival is online.
Coronavirus curtails religious services
Mosques across the Middle East were closed, with worshipers urged to pray at home instead. Saudi Arabia temporarily banned Umrah pilgrimages, which can be undertaken by Muslims at any time of year, to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina; the government has not yet decided about the annual Hajj in July.
Churches have also been shuttered. Poland’s first coronavirus victim was the wife of a church steward who distributed communion during mass. A Polish friend said bishops revised their approach after that, explaining communion could be experienced spiritually instead of physically. Although the church initially increased the number of masses to comply with government restrictions on group gatherings, it has begun encouraging worshippers to watch broadcasts instead amid tightening limits. In some places, coronavirus has affected the relationship between church and state. The Greek Orthodox Church caused controversy by stating that attendance at Eucharist and communion “cannot be a cause of disease transmission.” As doctors protested, the government intervened, with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis invoking his faith while advocating the need to follow scientific advice.
In addition, I learned about numerous kissing constraints. Orthodox worshippers in countries like Lithuania were told to stop kissing religious icons, while Spanish Catholics were advised against kissing statues. In Israel, the chief rabbi ruled people should stop kissing mezuzahs when they enter or depart Jewish homes.
It also prompts novel searches for cures
An expat in Moldova reported people drinking hot tea, which they believe will kill the virus. An Indian friend told me ayurvedic home remedies—such as turmeric and ginger—and cow urine are being recommended there as ways to get rid of the disease. In Lebanon, some Christians are delivering a mixture of holy water and soil from the grave of Saint Charbel Makhlouf, which is believed to have miraculous healing powers, to infected patients in Beirut hospitals. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has a nonchalant approach to the crisis, showed an audience the good luck charms—including an American $2 bill and four-leaf clover—that he carries in his wallet as “bodyguards.”
Conflict zones face unique challenges
In Afghanistan, the Taliban tweeted assurances to international health organizations of their readiness to coordinate on coronavirus responses and urged special attention to the health of their prisoners in Afghan jails. In Libya, an expat’s friend said the existing closure of airports is largely positive as a containment measure, though people are worried restrictions on borders and the entry of foreigners could affect the delivery of humanitarian assistance. The Syrian government has denied the existence of any coronavirus cases, but news reports cite concern among over-stretched hospitals and aid workers in refugee camps about their limited capacity to manage an outbreak. Even ISIS has issued health instructions, using Quranic verses, on washing hands, avoiding infected areas, and coughing or sneezing into hands or clothes. The group’s newsletter also advised its members against traveling to Europe for terror attacks given the pandemic.
Pandemics breed xenophobia
Racist attacks on Asian people in numerous countries have been well-documented. In China, an expat reports the opposite concern: a fear of foreigners. Although the virus is largely under control there, many fear a resurgence from overseas—even though new cases in the country are almost exclusively Chinese travelers who went abroad and returned home.
In Africa, the coronavirus is largely seen as a foreign intrusion, with early cases reported from European travelers or residents who recently visited Europe. For example, the Central Africa Republic just had its first case, from an Italian who had been in Milan. The first case in the DRC was a Congolese national who returned to Kinshasa from his home in France. Anti-foreigner sentiment is rising in Ethiopia, where typical derogatory comments targeting “ferengi” (foreigner) are now being combined with “corona.” Reports of foreigners being harassed and assaulted—including being hit with stones, spat on, chased and denied transportation services—led the U.S. Embassy there to issue a travel advisory this week.
They also breed conspiracy theories
An Afghan friend said some of his compatriots believe coronavirus is a conspiracy from infidel countries to prevent Muslims from practicing their religious rights, while others view it as a new economic warfare tool between the U.S. and China that doesn’t affect them. The Taliban suggested coronavirus is a God-sent scourge in response to “disobedience” and “sins of mankind.” In Egypt, the minister of religious affairs accused the Muslim Brotherhood of seeking to spread the coronavirus among the military, police, judiciary and media. The Iranian regime has blamed the U.S. and Israel, while Chinese officials have suggested the disease was brought to their country by the American Army. The United States is not immune to the conspiracy theory trend; for example, former U.S. Representative Ron Paul called it a “big hoax” and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. blamed the North Koreans.
But, humor still prevails
After South African President Cyril Ramaphosa instructed his citizens on the healthy elbow bump, it quickly became a local dance move. Even in Syria, there are music videos; this one lambasts President Bashar Assad as the “real corona.” A viral clip from Britain’s classic TV show Yes Minister about hapless government officials reflects how many feel about London’s sluggish response. A Serbian friend shared a circulating video that shows a pig being roasted on a spit; the swine is wearing a face mask, as an off-camera voice cites the importance of prevention.
There is widespread chuckling about the number of divorces and births that coronavirus may cause. A popular Twitter meme says: “Your grandparents were called to war. You are being called to sit on a couch. You can do this!” A common European joke says it is the first time in history that the original is from China and the copy is from Milan. Azerbaijanis love garlic and onion, so they suggest their eating habits will induce social distancing and destroy the virus. Self-deprecating Kosovars jest that “even the virus doesn’t want to visit Kosovo.” Inspired by the crowded supermarkets in Bulgaria, someone there wrote a parody of a classic poem about the historic battle at Shipka Pass in 1877 during the Russo-Turkish War. The new version describes a bloody grocery store battle, which rages until Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and President Donald Trump arrive to impose order.