empty shelves in a grocery store

Caption:  “Australia is running out of toilet paper! Damn you Corona!”– posted on Reddit by U/Barry_ETH -- March 2020.


If I had to choose a word that seems to sum up how I’m currently feeling about life in the midst of a global pandemic, it would be scarcity—because so much seems to be scarce right now. There is a scarcity of social interactions that I’m having with actual people/bodies in real time not mediated by a screen. There is a scarcity of touch in my life (and for anyone living alone like I am right now and without any animals, this is also a profound moment of recognizing how handshakes and hugs and taps on the shoulder are all small gestures of touch that I’m noticing a keen absence of at this present moment). And there is a scarcity of material goods.

The image above is from a store in Australia, but we’ve all seen similar images in stores across the US. Among the first things to be scarce is toilet paper—and this scarcity was apparently global. I initially thought this was a uniquely US phenomenon, but friends in Asian countries like South Korea, Taiwan, and China, told me that in the initial weeks of lockdown, toilet paper was also hard to find. I will leave it to others to muse on why this is, but the scarcity of toilet paper isn’t what I’m missing in terms of my own day-to-day life. It’s more the basics that I took for granted: flour, eggs, fresh baked bread, pastries, espresso.

Now, I know I can find these things—have found these things—but there are messages in many stores that people should limit the number of eggs that they take. And when I tried to get a bag of flour from King Sooper, ordering it on-line for pick-up, I wasn’t able to get any flour—or chicken thighs for that matter. And my weekly routine of going to Ozo coffee for a latte and croissant is dependent on whether Spruce Confectioners has dropped off any pastries, which is no longer done on a daily basis but every few days since so few patrons come to Ozo, which also worries me—the scarcity of customers that local businesses are trying to weather. These are, of course, the scarcities of someone living with privilege.

But the material scarcity that has me the most worried and fearful about are the ones that we are most in need of right now: PPE for our health care workers, grocery store workers, delivery drivers, postal workers, sanitation workers, and anyone in the supply chain for our food and medical needs. Tests, free tests for everyone who needs a test, which means for EVERYONE living in the US—tests for COVID-19 that we can take multiple times as we may find ourselves with symptoms or having contact with someone who had symptoms or who was diagnosed with COVID-19. Masks—we need masks for everyone and for everyone to wear a mask—for mask wearing to be normalized and required and modeled by our leaders at every level.

And speaking of leadership—this is another scarcity that I’m seeing and feeling. A scarcity in leadership from the highest levels in our government that unites us instead of divides us—that inspires us instead of frightens us—that provides guidance not guilt. We need leadership we can believe in to lead us out of the dark tunnel of this pandemic—leadership that is pragmatic not partisan, that recognizes that our lives during and post-pandemic will no longer look the same as our pre-pandemic world.  

And what I wish most for, in terms of scarcity, in a future I hope is not so distant, is a scarcity of fear—because fear is what feels most abundant right now. But even in the midst of my fear of and for the future, I also know this: there is a light at the end of this dark tunnel. There is still joy and music and poetry. There is still love and light and friendship. And because I finally found flour, there is a butter bundt cake cooling on my counter.

bundt cake

Jennifer Ho
Director, Center for Humanities & the Arts
Professor, Ethnic Studies