Over the weekend, the Italian government imposed a massive quarantine on nearly 16 million; it also closed schools and universities and suspended all sporting events. By midweek, the quarantine applied to the whole country. The government is also proposing to ban handshakes and even cheek kisses. When it comes to personal greetings, the novel coronavirus is turning social mores on their head.
In recent days other countries have followed suit. Government officials in France and Switzerland, according to The New York Times, have asked citizens to temporarily halt what’s known as “la bise,” the two-kiss greeting. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now supports greeting others with “namaste” instead of a traditional handshake. Here at home, Vice President Mike Pence was videoed deploying the “elbow bump” instead of extending his right hand.
I am trying to find light in this new darkness. Or to paraphrase Gabriel Garcia Marquez, humor in a time of plague.
In that vein, I wondered whether Italian authorities (and others) had gotten their “no kiss” decree from the latest edition of Broadway Beat, an online magazine whose tagline is “Fake Broadway News for Real Broadway Newsies.” A banner headline reads: “CDC urges citizens to avoid spreading coronavirus by greeting exclusively with jazz hands.” According to the report, a made-up spokesperson (Dr. Ruben Spurkle) for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urged “everyone to stop shaking hands immediately. Instead, we suggest greeting people in a manner both more sanitary and, frankly, more fabulous: jazz hands. If we have any hope of saving the world from this crippling disease, by God, it is with sassy, interpretative movement.”
Keep the distance, I’m serious
Coincidentally, or perhaps this is a case of “great” minds think alike, I had made the same decision earlier in the week after North Carolina reported its first cases of coronavirus. While I’m hale and hearty, I’ve got friends and family members who are considered at high risk of this new coronavirus (that causes the disease known as COVID-19), either because they are over 60 or have underlying health problems. I want to make sure I don’t become a carrier, inadvertently infecting them.
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Just before the weekend, I walked into our local coffee shop, a place where everyone knows my name. Typically, there are all sorts of greetings — from handshakes to hugs, even some of that European-style cheek-to-cheek kissing. We’re very cosmopolitan here in Hillsborough.
As soon as I walked through the café’s door, my friend Margo rushed from her chair to greet me. I know that she’s a hugger and a kisser, and that she has spent a good deal of time in Italy. I stopped her dead in her tracks: “Margo!” I said with my outside voice, “I’m modeling manners in the Age of the Coronavirus. Keep your distance!” She laughed at me and continued to shrink the social distance between us. I then performed what I call my “namaste bow,” folding my arms with a dip of the head. She looked dead straight at me, asking: “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
I was. I am. Public health officials are hoping that this change in our social habits may play a role in slowing this contagion, if not forestall more draconian measures.
But how do you reject a handshake, hug or kiss tactfully — especially if you live in a community with documented cases of coronavirus, or if some of your nearest and dearest are considered at high risk like older people and those with underlying health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, lung problems and weakened immune systems. (For instance, my sister — who has cancer — has a 3 1/2 times the risk of needing a ventilator or “other intensive care” should she become infected, according to STAT. If protecting her — and others — by refusing to shake hands or social kiss with friends and strangers, I’ll make that choice.)
Let the humor help
“It’s really awkward to change social habits that could spread it,” Bryce Eberhart, a marketing communications consultant, told me. Apparently, Eberhart has many friends who like to hug and kiss, and he’s worried. (Eberhart lives in San Francisco, which is covered by California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state of emergency in response to the coronavirus.)
Humor, with the right public health message, is certainly one means to raise awareness. “The Late Show” host Stephen Colbert introduced us to a handful of new ways to greet each other last week, including the “Wuhan Shake,” which is actually shoe bumping. Then there’s “The Selfie,” where you shake hands — with yourself — and “The Intern,” no doubt a Hollywood-only phenomenon, which adds handshaking for your boss to a lowly assistant’s job description. Alas, humor only takes us so far.
All this talk about changing behavior in the face of infection brings back memories from the earliest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I remember, awkwardly, first starting to use condoms with new sexual partners. Did this imply I was infected? I wasn’t, but that wasn’t the point. Many of my friends simply didn’t know their HIV status, which was why widespread condom use was crucial. We needed to think about our community at large.
At the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, where I worked, we developed a public health campaign titled “Be A Rubberman,” which explicitly sought to make condom use a no-brainer in the gay men’s community. One of the billboards, featuring a young man wearing only a pair of white boxers with a condom in his hand, declared in text: “I know tops get AIDS, but not this one. … I use rubbers every time. DO YOU?”
Hector Carrillo, then a coordinator of the AIDS Foundation hotline and now a professor of sociology and gender studies at Northwestern, reminded me in a call that “the invention of safe sex and the emphasis on condom use was seen as an alternative to more draconian measures like asking gay men to stop having sex or closing the gay bars.” (San Francisco did controversially shutter its gay bathhouses in 1984 as a means to halt the spread of the disease, known then as the “gay plague.”) Such prevention campaigns, Dr. Carrillo said, “helped gay men change their attitudes and in turn their behaviors.”
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Does he see parallels to the current epidemic? “Yes,” he said, “we’re seeing an initial emphasis on the need to alter interactions like shaking hands, casual kissing and embracing. We’re being asked to alter them fairly rapidly and immediately to reduce the possibilities of transmission.”
Indeed, with widespread adoption, let’s hope that it may be possible to avoid more draconian measures like government-imposed quarantines, the closing of schools and the suspension of concerts and sporting events. Or, God forbid, the visible tattooing of those infected, a measure proposed by the late conservative writer William F. Buckley vis a vis those infected with HIV. We must balance our strategies at contagion with our efforts to fight stigma.
Over the weekend I had friends in for dinner. I have also learned the importance of being direct; the night before I emailed, “Alas, I am serious: We will greet each other with elbow bumps or namaste bows! And I will have individual hand towels in the bathroom.”
When I do my “namaste bow” — instead of embracing or kissing you — understand that this is a small price to pay in lieu of a much larger one. Last month, Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, wrote in Scientific American, “We should prepare, not because we may feel personally at risk, but so that we can help lessen the risk for everyone.”
Jazz hands now, everyone. (Oh, and don’t forget to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds.)