“What is the first thing you plan to do when the pandemic ends?”
As a normal person, you’re probably thinking of one of life’s simple pleasures — eating in a restaurant, exercising at your health club, maybe meeting for a movie; you may be doing some of these things already. But when The New York Times asked readers this question, one replied, “Oh, to be able to shake hands again.”
As someone who has practiced the hands-free-door open maneuver for decades, not only was shaking hands nowhere near the top of my post-pandemic list, it actually came several notches below “sitting in traffic.” A fellow traveler on an MGH elevator recently asked me to push two, then noted I had mastered the key-in-the-button move. “Mastered it?” I replied proudly. “I patented it.”
There was a time I might have feared coming off as a germaphobe but, now that what was once a pathology has become a best practice, I’m hoping some ancient rituals will permanently disappear. Yes, the handshake made perfect sense in Greece in the fifth century BC, where it is thought to have originated as a way for two people who were meeting to demonstrate that neither was concealing a weapon. In the 21st century, the practice has become a form of germ warfare.
Well before the pandemic, researchers at Aberystwyth University at Ceredigion in Great Britain found that “handshakes transfer many more bacteria than other forms of greeting.” David Whitworth in the biochemistry department notes that “many medics have called for bans on handshakes.” Researchers affiliated with medical programs at the University of California at Los Angeles, which found that “even after washing, 80 percent of individuals retain some disease-causing bacteria,” recommended hospitals and health clinics ban handshakes due to the “infectious risk.” The two neonatal intensive care units at UCLA have implemented a handshake-free zone. “Lots of studies show that handshakes transmit disease,” Dr. Mark Sklansky, a professor of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, tells me via e-mail.
Yet according to the World Health Organization, nearly 40 percent of doctors failed to wash their hands pre-pandemic, and the custom of shaking hands is so ingrained that even those who do often tread carefully. When offered a hand, Sklansky explains, “I decide whether to shake and then wash hands, or to exploit the opportunity as a teaching moment.” Noting that human contact is “not unique to the handshake,” he prefers a touch on the shoulder or arm, or non-contact options such as the namaste or bow. “Habits can be broken/changed,” he adds. “[It] just takes time and effort.”
And confidence. Prior to the pandemic, it was not easy to offer an alternative greeting to the doctor who extends one hand while coughing into the other. It’s even more challenging in social settings. I would have been grateful if someone had warned me they were coming down with something before taking my hand, instead of after. Instead, I found such disclosures are typically met warily, as if they were a personal rejection. I wanted to ask if they really wanted to shake hands so badly that it was worth missing days of work, nights of sleep — perhaps ruining their trip to Europe. Abstaining isn’t just a sensible strategy to avoid illnesses ourselves; it’s a thoughtful way to avoid spreading them to others. It should become the polite, not rude, response.
Personally, I believe that hugs should be reserved for trees but at least an embrace conveys affection. All a handshake suggests is infection. What is so magical about this ritual that can’t be accomplished by an elbow-bump or a wave?
The very idea of noting any positive “side effects” of the COVID virus seems tone-deaf at best, as though attributing those benefits to the deaths of millions worldwide. So, I hope it won’t make me sound “pro-COVID” to notice a precipitous drop in admittedly less lethal illnesses during the pandemic. Between the onset of COVID and September, the CDC reported influenza plummeted to “historically low inter-seasonal levels.” During that same period, as noted in Wired, “People were far less likely to get sick sick — at least from respiratory viruses that aren’t called SARS-CoV-2.”
During this pandemic, there has also been a decline of approximately 2.4 billion tons in global greenhouse gas emissions — the largest on record, according to the University of East Anglia, the University of Exeter, and the Global Carbon Project. Previously invisible workers were deemed essential while others became eligible for jobs a half a world away after employers discovered that not every position need be tethered to an office. Who wouldn’t trade it all to reclaim the lives lost?
But, if we fail to acknowledge all of the lessons large and small we’ve learned from the pandemic, we will have squandered a learning opportunity. Before we return to all our bad old habits from the good old days, why not reevaluate everything? This is a time that demands science, not nostalgia over lost customs that never made sense in the first place.
In The Art of the Comeback, Donald Trump described shaking hands as “one of the curses of American society.” Had he left that insight as his one contribution to public discourse, perhaps he would have deserved a hand.
Andy Levinsky is a writer for Regis College. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.