When you extend your hand to shake, you are extending a bioweapon. Every time you touch a surface, you may be picking up to 50 percent of the organisms on that surface. Our hands can carry Salmonella, E. coli, norovirus and respiratory infections like adenovirus and hand-foot-mouth disease.
But how can we stop doing something that is so ingrained? Social distancing seemed impossibly hard to adapt to at first. Could the handshake die out? And if it does, what could replace it?
It started centuries ago as a symbol of peace, a gesture to prove you were not holding a weapon, and over time it became part of almost every social, religious, professional, business and sporting exchange.
Today, shaking hands has become a global standard for greetings and business. Even though handshakes are not literally used to ascertain whether the other person is holding weapons anymore, they have maintained their signal of showing good intentions. That is an especially important signal in business contexts, where people are often meeting with strangers in highly consequential settings
We are social beings. When we meet one another, we like our presence be acknowledged by a little touch. In the middle of the coronavirus it has become clear just how intimate such a gesture is.
It is not so much that handshake itself that is important, but rather the culturally universal message it conveys: one of cooperation and connection. After all, from bowing to pressing noses, alternatives already exist. If there is a societal need to adapt, we as human beings are immensely capable.
Handshakes may be just the tip of the iceberg when gauging how our social lives, both personally and professionally, might be changed by COVID-19. Interactions with family, friends and colleagues may take on a fresh new look, as many of the behaviours we are forced or encouraged to adopt during the pandemic could carry over once we are through the worst of it. Will sidewalk conversations with neighbours continue at a distance? When will we feel comfortable enough to go to a music concert, or will the newly found joy we have discovered in jigsaw puzzles and homemade cocktails supplant the need to go out?
We’ve missed those really deep, emotional connections with people who aren’t in our immediate household, but as we venture out and start doing things with people with whom we don’t have a strong relationship, we will probably be much more hesitant to shake someone’s hand, to give somebody a hug.
Numerous factors make predicting post-COVID behaviour difficult, including people’s fears of infection, the social acceptability of their actions, and what they see others doing. Habits formed during the pandemic may also have a large role. For example, see a growth in digital contact, including over such video chat interfaces as Zoom, FaceTime and Skype, as more people become familiar with them for both work and social settings.
New habits are only likely to stick in a post-COVID world, the pandemic will accelerate trends already in motion, such as online shopping and alternate forms of dining, while mass entertainment such as music concerts and sporting events face a possible double whammy, as our initial reluctance to put ourselves in crowded situations may be exacerbated by whatever activities we’ve adopted in recent months. Once we are not afraid, we might be comfortable going back to them. But just because we are comfortable going back does not mean we have not replaced them with something else.
If we develop a vaccine and this coronavirus in some sense goes away, we would not be surprised if things went back to normal until there was another scare. But if there is a lingering problem, if it hangs on or mutates, or people can get re-infected, then I think there is a higher probability of long-term change. There might be some proportion of people who just will not go see a play anymore or go to the movies or a busy restaurant. Like ever again.
Among the many things we will reassess in the wake of covid-19, why not consider whether the namaste can permanently do that job better? As its wordless suggestion of warmth and sincerity might win out eventually. A certain immunologist could do the countries a favour by trying the namaste at the next world summit.