Toilet Paper and Facemasks, Icons of the Pandemic

In times of crisis, people get creative. And in times of lockdown, people have time to spare. So it was to be expected that covid19 would lead to an explosion of art, as a way to make the best of the miserable situation we found ourselves in. This phenomenon struck me as well, in the form of two new world maps.

Toilet rolls

In March of this year, in the week we discovered that the corona pandemic would not pass the Netherlands completely unnoticed, I saw someone walking with three mega packs of toilet paper. And moments later another person with the same commodities. And another one. It was a trend. And although there was still plenty of toilet paper in warehouses, the shelves in the supermarkets were mostly empty for a while.

I’ve heard many explanations for that sudden toilet paper hoarding. Maybe it was because people ran out of their supplies faster because they worked from home. Perhaps a shortage of toilet paper in the supermarket is simply more noticeable because packs with 24 toilet rolls take up more space than, for example, tuna cans. Perhaps the sudden focus on personal hygiene prompted people to collect everything related to it. Or maybe comedian Arjen Lubach had the right theory: most of us can’t imagine food shortages, but we’ve all run out of toilet paper at some point, so that’s what the hoarders focus on.

World map made of digital rolls of toilet paper, made during the first wave of the covid19 pandemic
Covid19 art: a toilet paper world map


Anyway, the shortages of toilet paper did not appear to be an exclusively Dutch phenomenon. Facebook friends from far-flung places like Australia and the United States posted videos in which friendly nations organized toilet roll drops to ease the need. And other funny memes that we could use in those gloomy days.

World map

It was only a matter of time before I came up with my own meme: a map of the world made of 1127 toilet rolls. Digital toilet rolls that is; I didn’t have to hoard toilet paper for it. This map is in no way responsible for the painful shortages.

Detail of a world map made of toilet paper, showing Europe and the adjacent parts of Africa and Asia
That should be enough for the foreseeable future…


After a relatively relaxed summer, now all of Europe is struggling with the second wave of covid-19. But there’s no run on toilet paper this time. Instead, this wave has its own icon: the face mask. They’ve been for sale in my American webshop for several months now.

Facemask with a print of a virtual 3d relief made of pieces of colored glass
Virtual relief facemask


In the Netherlands we started wearing masks a bit late, partly due to the discussion among scientists whether they work or not. As a cartographer I don’t want to say too much about that controversy. But I can’t really imagine that they don’t work at least a bit; after all, any little covid that sticks to a face mask does not end up in someone’s lungs.

But of course you have to use them in the right way. So don’t have your nose protruding above it, do not fiddle with it all the time, do not keep it in your pocket for days on end. And don’t put it down to exchange French kisses with beautiful strangers.

And one more thing: throw them in the trash can after use and not on the street. There is enough litter already. Many face masks can also simply be washed, by the way.

Detail of a world map made of facemasks, carelessly thrown away on the pavement, showing the distinct shape of North America
North America in facemasks


Of course, also the icon of this second wave found its way to a cartographic meme. But here too I would like to state that the 388 face masks that together form the world map below were digitally generated. Not a street has been polluted and not a mask has been wasted to produce the map.

World map made of 388 facemasks, carelessly thrown away on the pavement, made during the second wave of covid19
Covid19 art: a facemask world map


I like to make triptychs, but in this case I hope it will be limited to two covid-related world maps. Nobody is looking forward to a third wave.

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