The Great Aussie Shit Fight Over Toilet Paper

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Toilet Paper

At first, it was mildly humorous to see people stocking up on toilet paper. And to see the various memes floating around the internet taking the mickey out of the latest Australian shopping craze, showing innovative solutions, like toilets hooked up to lawn sprinklers, and homemade loo paper out of old fabric.

Then it was pretty funny when one newspaper, the NT News went so far as to print an extra eight pages of one edition, leaving them bare, except for watermarks and a cut-out guide, encouraging readers to follow the instructions in case of emergency and make their own toilet paper.

But, as footage of two women having a full-on physical fight over toilet paper in a Sydney supermarket shot around the world attracting more than 4 million views, it started to become a little embarrassing.

Criminal charges laid over supermarket fight

Since then, rather than die down, the great Aussie shit fight has turned very serious, with several people charged over incidents at shopping centres.

The two Sydney women who’s fight with another customer at Woolworths in Chullora went viral, have been charged with affray and will appear at a local court on 28 April 2020.

The video of their confrontation was posted on social media and has been viewed more than 4 million times.

The offence of ‘Affray’

Affray is an offence under section 93C of the Crimes Act 1900 which attracts a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison if the case is dealt with in the District Court, or two years if the case remains in the Local Court.

The act of affray is where “a person who uses or threatens unlawful violence towards another, and whose conduct is such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for his or her safety.”

Man tasered by police

In a separate incident, a 50-year-old Tamworth man was tasered by police after assaulting a staff member and fellow customer at a local supermarket in a dispute over toilet paper. It’s alleged he grabbed a fellow customer by the throat and had an altercation with a store staff member. He has been charged with two counts each of common assault, one of resisting an officer in execution of duty, and assaulting an officer in execution of duty.

Common assault is an offence under section 61 of the Crimes Act 1900 which carries a maximum penalty of 2 years in prison and/or a fine of $5,500. To establish the offence, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that:

  1. The defendant caused another person to fear immediate and unlawful violence, or made physical contact with another person,
  2. The other person did not consent, and
  3. The actions were intentional or reckless.

Resisting an officer in execution of duty is an offence under section 546C of the Crimes Act which attracts a maximum penalty of 12 months behind bars and/or a $1,100 fine.

Assaults on police officers are taken very seriously by the courts and penalties of up to 14 years in prison can apply.

It’s a lot to risk for a few rolls of loo paper. But scenarios like these are becoming more common every day as fears about Coronavirus spiral to unprecedented proportions.

Around the globe

Now, it seems it’s not just Australia. In the UK, the coronavirus crisis has also caused shopping hysteria across the country, with people stocking up on toilet rolls, pasta, long-life milk and bottled water, forcing supermarkets to place purchasing restrictions on even the most basic grocery items. In the USA and Canada too, supermarket shelves are being stripped bare of essentials in this alarming, irrational trend.

Shops in Japan, the US and New Zealand are now also running low on toilet paper and in Hong Kong thieves held up a supermarket to steal a delivery.

So why toilet paper?

A lot of people have questioned ‘why toilet paper’? Particularly since the virus is a respiratory illness (similar to a ‘flu), rather than a digestive upset, like diarrhea.

According to reports, when news of the virus first hit, video footage from China caused many people to stock up on face masks and hand sanitisers. Now the buying sprees have extended to toilet paper, household goods, food, and also medications – such as cold and flu medicines, pain relievers and, even in some cases antibiotics and antiviral medications that people have resorted to buying over the internet.

Supply and demand

Of course, panic buying begets panic buying. This is a basic principle of supply and demand. When people are fearful something will run out, as toilet paper has done in many supermarkets across the nation in recent weeks, with retailers being forced to put purchase limits on customers, then people rush to stock up, which can then lead to unnecessary hoarding.

In one instance, a cafe in Northern Queensland is experiencing such a shortage of loo paper it’s now offering ‘a free coffee in exchange for some rolls’. There have also been reports of people trying to sell toilet paper on social media community pages and in local buy/swap groups for exorbitant prices, trying to make a quick buck out of the distress associated with running out.

Psychologists weighing in on the toilet paper phenomenon say one reason people are behaving this way is because they’re trying to prepare, and regain a sense of control.

Several countries have imposed quarantines in towns and cities. Travel restrictions and some bans are now in place for many destinations and right now, on the face of it, there is not much hope, if you’re to believe the hype.

Even the Federal Government’s Coronavirus economic stimulus package will do little to allay these fears, although it will provide households receiving government benefits including pensioners and those getting Newstart, Carer’s Allowance and Family Tax Benefits with a long overdue cash injection, in the form of one-off payments of $750.

For those fearing the worst, this will buy a lot of toilet paper and grocery items.

The $2.4 billion national health package pledge too, is likely to add to the growing anxiety and alarmism that’s obviously being felt by many Australians right now.

This is not to suggest that Coronavirus is not a serious illness. People have died. And, given it’s epidemic proportions in some countries, Coronavirus has now been declared a ’pandemic’ by the World Health Organisation.

That said, what we’re not seeing right now from our own leaders or from national mainstream media is a healthy dose of reality.

Keeping perspective

The latest figures from the Department of Health confirm 112 cases of Coronavirus in Australia and a total of three deaths to date.

On average one woman a week is killed at the hands of a partner or former partner. Last year almost 100 people died from influenza. Also last year 1182 people died on our roads, with 352 fatalities in NSW alone.

It’s time for some perspective. Risking a prison sentence for a few rolls of toilet paper is hardly rational behaviour.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.
Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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