The pandemic has brought in its wake the possible elimination of the handshake
By Yvonne Sam
The handshake has always represented a deeply-established social custom, and the most ubiquitous form of salutation or agreement. Thanks to the emergence of COVID-19 the hands are once again being recognized, as vectors for infection.
There are some, who do not shake hands for religious or cultural reasons, and who feel that the current restriction should have served to prove their point. In a 2014 article, a doctor and his colleagues contended that healthcare workers can keep patients safe, if they keep their hands to themselves, as shaking hand in healthcare settings can spread pathogens and viruses jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/1873637.
Other physicians, angry at such a finding, felt that getting rid of the handshake would damage the already fragile patient-doctor bond, that the greeting was irreplaceable, and that they could manage to shake hands and wash them, without spreading any disease. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4665274/.
Handshakes are just one form of touch that has evaporated during the global coronavirus outbreak, along with the little points of contact we make, when we stand closer than six feet apart.
In an April interview with the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of America’s top infectious disease experts and part of the U.S government’s coronavirus task force, said, “I don’t think we should ever shake hands, ever again, to be honest with you.” time.com/5818134/anthony-fauci-never-shake-hands-coronavirus/
Once the pandemic is over, and we are safe from any wave, we will, most certainly, see people who would want a return to the handshake, and others, who will look at them strangely or refuse to touch them, even with a 12-foot pole.
We will, most certainly, have to overcome discomfiture, as we try to figure out how to greet somebody, how to professionally welcome someone, or how to greet your son’s girlfriend for the first time. The uncertainty can certainly affect relationships.
Predictably, we will begin to see more interpersonal and family-based squabbles. For example, if your business partner attempts a handshake, and your mother goes in for the hug, and the hand is withdrawn or the body pulled away. Such gestures are certainly not without their ripple effect, in terms of relational dynamics.
Even if you despise being hugged or held close, outside of intimate relationships and encounters, or are averse to shaking hands, losing social touch completely, like we have during this pandemic, still may not feel normal, or anywhere close.
Already experts are predicting that some degree of social touch will disappear permanently, even after the wave subsides and social distancing inches closer, and people start to rebuild their social lives. There is yet to be a consensus on what will replace it.
Language is the most obvious way that humans foster social ties with one another, but touch does something similar. It also helps to reduce aggression between people.
“When you’re socially touching someone, it’s very hard to be aggressive towards them,” says Tiffany Field, Director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
Welcome touch is good for your health; it’s been shown to lower stress and activate the release of oxytocin, which is nicknamed the “love hormone” and helps promote bonding and closeness. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4290532/
Additionally, oxytocin is released, in response to low intensity stimulation of the skin, such as in response to touch, stroking, warm temperature, etc. Consequently, oxytocin is not only released during interaction between mothers and infants, but also during positive interaction between adults or between humans and animals.
While the handshake may not disappear completely, after the pandemic is under control, but it will certainly change. People might reserve handshakes and hugs for those, who are closest to them and who they trust the most, and develop new greetings that don’t involve skin-on-skin contact for those further outside their social circle.
There are many alternatives: the elbow bump, a foot tap, a bow, the Namaste (a Sanskrit phrase meaning I bow to you) gesture, a brief nod or head tilt, placing a hand on your heart.
While a change is evident, it is unclear which will prevail. There is such a wide range of values and beliefs and political views underlying it all. One thing for certain is that we would not all arrive at the same solution.
Notwithstanding, to clasp hands is to allow two lives to collide in a brief moment of trust. To forgo the handshake forever, is akin to asking humans to cease trying to one-up one another or to stop seeking a kindred spirit.
Let us take a stand, Covid must not eliminate the use of the hand, and permanently obliterate what previous epidemics did not.
Aleuta, the struggle continues.
Yvonne Sam, a retired Head Nurse and Secondary School Teacher, is the Chair of the Rights and Freedom Committee at the Black Community Resource Centre. A regular columnist for over two decades with the Montreal Community Contact, her insightful and incursive articles on topics ranging from politics, human rights and immigration, to education and parenting have also appeared in the Huffington Post, Montreal Gazette, XPressbogg and Guyanese OnLine. She is also the recipient of the Governor General of Canada Caring Canadian Citizen Award.