Hand Sanitizers at the University – A Scarce Good

In late April, the president of the University of Bayreuth (in the southern German Free State of Bavaria) sends out an email with the latest Infection Protection Act. In paragraph 7, the universities are asked to guarantee sufficient possibilities for hand washing and sanitizing in their facilities. However, the president writes that the sufficient provision with sanitizer dispensers is a difficult task at the moment due to “the current market situation” and that it will take a few more weeks until the problem will be solved.  

Curious to find out more, I get in touch with the responsible persons at the university’s Department for Acquisition and Inventory Management  and they confirm that they’ve never seen anything like what’s currently happening on the sanitizer market. Lately, many products have simply become unavailable.  

In the current Covid-19 pandemic, hand sanitizer dispensers have become a scarce good © picture alliance/dpa/Daniel Karmann

By the end of February, when the Covid-19 epidemic came increasingly closer, the university ordered 40 dispensers. In early March, they attempted to order additional dispensers, as well as refilling bags, but the provider was even back then unable to provide any and couldn’t quote a delivery date. There are enough supplies of disinfectant agents, which are used for cleaning surfaces at the university, but due to state regulations, these may not be used as hand sanitizers.

Instead, different kinds of hand sanitizer products have been ordered from other firms to refill the available dispensers. These hand sanitizers are based on alcohol and one on chlorine, provided by a firm specialized on the purification of water. When I ask the person responsible for ordering the products about their smell, she laughingly responds that she never even gave a thought to this! In the product data sheets the smells are described as alcoholic and chlorine respectively…

In the meanwhile, the in-house technicians are busy installing the precious forty dispensers where they are most urgently needed. While at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis dispensers were installed more generally across the campus, lately many have been removed and installed in newly reopened facilities. 

Author: Claudia Liebelt

Claudia Liebelt is Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Free University of Berlin. Her research foci are in the Anthropology of the Body and the Senses, Gender and Sexuality, as well as Religion. She is especially interested in debates on the biopolitics of beauty and hygiene, sensory history and smell, as well as postsecularism and new materialities, with a regional focus on the Middle East and Northern Africa.

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