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Americans, it turns out, love their toilet paper. As the coronavirus pandemic intensified across the country, supermarket shelves stripped of eggs, hand sanitizer, and bread produced a phrase that may end up defining our increasingly warped year: panic buying. Sprawling lines outside grocery stores, special shopping hours for vulnerable seniors, and scuffles over tissue products are our new reality. Toilet paper has turned into a symbol of our collective anxiety. The irony is that there’s no indication that there’s any real shortage at all.
For days, my parents could not find a single roll of toilet paper in a major supermarket in Los Angeles. Thousands of miles away in Detroit, neither could I. The Olympics were canceled; hoarding became a national sport. And my nightly conversations with family teetered between tactical recommendations for things to buy, along with memories of another crisis that changed the course of our lives forever.
During the Iran-Iraq war, my extended family and I lived in the basement of our Tehran home as bomb sirens went off and ate rationed food bought with coupons. My second birthday present from my uncle was a box of Kellogg’s corn flakes imported from Germany: edible gold at a time when access to regular goods was extremely limited. Once my family attained a measure of socioeconomic stability after emigrating to the United States, having two refrigerators stockpiled with homemade frozen goods became the norm at my house. Meals were made in large quantities, and ingredients on the brink of expiration were never thrown away but cooked and canned for another day. With extended family moving within a five-mile radius of us, we were kept aware of each other’s whereabouts at all times. We were prepared for everything: Keeping cash at home was the norm, and our passports were always valid and easily accessible.
But our prudence wasn’t the same impulse that’s gripping Americans today. Experts say that shoppers are driven to panic buy and hoard as a way to gain a sense of control, but when you’re accustomed to instability, assessing risk early on is a psychological state that doesn’t leave you. It’s not so much a matter of if things change, but when.
That’s why for many refugees and immigrant families who have lived through traumatic events with bouts of food insecurity and deprivation, being prepared does not mean a one-off hoarding event at a grocery store of goods like toilet paper while a pandemic is already under way. Stockpiling reserves strategically, self-isolating to avoid danger, making meals stretch over several days, and having an exit plan is a way of life, culturally and socially embedded in how you operate on a daily basis.
Leana Yonan’s Assyrian family was forced to leave Iraq as Saddam Hussein came to power. That journey and its aftermath in America now help her navigate the current crisis. “They know what it’s like for things to change in a matter of seconds,” Yonan says of her relatives. “It’s kind of reassuring to know that this has been part of my culture. In a way, I’m able to translate all of this.”
Vishavjit Singh lived through the 1984 anti-Sikh massacre in India which left thousands dead. The event is resurfacing in conversations he’s having with his brother as they both shelter in place. They’re reminded, he says, that death is not an abstract concept, that hypervigilance is important for survival. As he puts it: “We’ve gone through something that was in some ways more urgent and worse.”
The coronavirus pandemic has not only unearthed memories for immigrant families who have experienced war, violence, and political turmoil. It’s also informing how these families are coping.
N.A. Mansour is a PhD student who grew up in the West Bank during the Second Intifada. With generators, cultivating and storing food, school closures and armed checkpoints a part of her everyday childhood, she is accustomed to instability. “We’ve been training our whole lives for this,” she says. “The idea of a backup plan has always been at the back of my mind.”
She’s stored enough dry goods like freekeh, za’atar, and bulgur to get her through for the next few months, and fields questions from friends who ask how she’s coping with a simple answer: “I tell them I’m Palestinian.”
Last week during lockdown, Maya Dukmasova received a takeout order that came with a garnish of raw onions. She instinctively saved it, using it as a base for a mushroom soup—no tearful onion-cutting necessary. The soup was made with dried mushrooms her grandmother had picked herself in Russia and mailed to her.
A reporter for the Chicago Reader, Dukmasova was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and lived through the duality of scarcity of the Soviet Union as well as post-Soviet collapse. Her grandparents witnessed the Siege of Leningrad, where 2 million people died. Coping mechanisms that arose during these events in her family history have suddenly gained a new meaning.
“In some ways, I just feel like I’ve been sort of prepared for this kind of environment from my earliest childhood, it feels strangely familiar,” she says. Having a “scarcity” mindset, she says, means you’re more focused on raw ingredients instead of finishing products. Whereas the mainstream focus is on hand sanitizer, those who have been through deprivation and disruption are buying alcohol.
“There’s a preoccupation of making sure the basic building blocks of the things you want are there.”
Toilet paper isn’t a concern of Dukmasova’s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, using newspapers was a tried-and-true alternative. “The immigrants I know are not worried about toilet paper. They’re stocking up meat in their freezers, meat that comes on bones, meat that has a lot of fat on it.”
American panic buying has also revealed another aspect of the socioeconomic divide that immigrants are often hurt by: lack of access to disposable income. Not only are foreign-born households larger than native-born ones, with three or more generations living together, according to the latest Census data; their median household income is smaller, too. Six million immigrant workers are also currently at the frontlines of the pandemic, accounting for a larger share in “coronavirus-response frontline occupations,” including health care, grocery stores, and food production. With limited access to “safety-net systems and federal relief,” they remain vulnerable, and the pandemic’s economic fallout will be exacerbated for them according to the Migration Policy Institute. These strains often mean that expendable income for supplies to hoard often doesn’t exist. “This manic purchasing is the show of the ability to purchase things,” says Camilo Ramirez.
Ramirez is an asylee from Colombia, a country that up until 2016, had the longest running civil war in history. He’s also an economist who has studied herd mentality. “They buy because everybody is buying, but they don’t know what to buy because they’ve never been in this situation,” he says.
Hypervigilant from a lifetime of seeing guns and violence, Ramirez was considering leaving the United States weeks ago. Last month, as news of the crisis hit and Trump was suggesting that it was “very much under control,” Ramirez was asking his doctor to fill his prescription for the next four months. He pulled his son out of school just before official shutdown orders took effect across the country.
With major supermarkets struggling to restock shelves, he turned to local immigrant-owned markets, where it was business as usual. This was true in my Detroit neighborhood too, where over 40 percent of the population is foreign-born and has a network of local markets serving everyone from Polish to Yemeni immigrants.
Immigrants have always relied on alternative supply chains like ethnic markets, where goods are imported from their homelands and relationships with business owners run deep. In fact, these small, independent immigrant-run businesses have been shown to improve food environments in low-income urban neighborhoods.
Greg Nemet turned to his local halal grocery store as the number of coronavirus cases continued to grow. “I got everything I needed,” he says. Before coming to the United States with his family in the ’90s, Nemet spent the early years of his childhood in Armenia, which suffered a catastrophic earthquake and territorial war with neighboring Azerbaijan—not to mention the Soviet collapse—over the course of just a couple of years. Much of their survival depending on neighbors and their immediate community. “I remember how my grandma would constantly lean on our neighbors, not just for eggs but for everything,” he says. “You become very, very hyperlocal about things.”
Pulsing through the world indiscriminately, the coronavirus has infected over 1 million people and, as of this writing, claimed the lives of 59,000, a number that will continue to rise. As we deal with its path of destruction and the shared, overwhelming anxiety it has brought, perhaps there are lessons to be drawn from populations who have learned to cope with, and assess danger. Though they come from complex backgrounds and remain at risk for both socioeconomic and health disparities, they also carry a collective resilience to not just overcome adversity, but keep going in spite of it—adapting over and over again in the face of instability.
As Nemet says, “The world has actually changed already, and only an immigrant or refugee can explain that to you.”