The global coronavirus outbreak — over 1.02 lakh infections and nearly 3,500 deaths in 89 countries — has triggered behavioural responses ranging from fistfights in supermarkets over toilet rolls and hand sanitisers, to refusing to kiss or shake hands in greeting.
While the former kind is a panic reaction born of insecurity and misinformation, the latter is a sensible, informed response to an unfolding crisis.
Therefore, we have had a German Minister refusing to shake his leader Angela Merkel’s extended hand, and the Chancellor immediately backing off and acknowledging that the Minister was in the right.
And Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that the time has come to fold hands in an “Indian namaste” instead of clasping and shaking them in greeting.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, has asked people to refrain from shaking hands and greet each other with ‘namaste’ instead.
So what has the coronavirus outbreak got to do with touching?
The infection spreads through person-to-person contact. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, flying droplets can land in the mouths or noses of those nearby. Often the droplets will be too tiny for you to notice.
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that you could be infected if you are within 6 feet of an infected individual. This is why it is important to wear a mask if you have symptoms. Having your nose and mouth covered will ensure you minimise the chances of infecting others when you cough or sneeze. And everyone should avoid crowded places as much as possible.
Another way the infection spreads is through infected surfaces. Thus, if an infected person coughs or sneezes while covering their face with their palms, and you shake hands with that person soon after, the virus might be transmitted to you.
It works the same way if you touch surfaces like door handles, tabletops, publicly used keypads like those in ticket-vending machines, handrails in public transport and escalators at malls or airports, etc.
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However, ethanol and bleach-based cleaners can kill most coronaviruses. That is the reason doctors advise people to use handrubs with 60% or greater alcohol content after they have touched public surfaces during an outbreak.
Doctors also advise you to avoid touching your face. But that is an involuntary trigger in most people, and they cannot be expected to be able to control them to any significant extent.
So how do you greet a person if you can’t shake their hands?
For Indians, the obvious and natural alternatives are Namaste, Pranam, Namaskar, Vanakkam, Aadaab, Salaam, Hello, or whatever is the prevalent greeting in the place you live. Just a friendly nod or a salute is excellent.
If physical touch does not come naturally to you, that’s great these days. Many urban Indians wave to each other upon being introduced; that’s a pretty good habit currently.
Lifestyle expert Philippe Lichtfus, who has been widely quoted in the western media of late, says mere eye contact is a perfectly acceptable greeting, and that handshakes, for all their ubiquity, don’t even have deep cultural and historical roots, having started only in the Middle Ages.
Jhappis are avoidable, and while you need not deprive yourself of Holi celebrations in small groups comprising friends and family, you may want to give those hearty embraces a miss this year.
Also, do wash your hands thoroughly in soap and warm water, or sanitise them with an alcohol-based handrub before wading into the celebrations and putting colour on other people’s faces.
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Pictures and videos of the “Wuhan Shake” have appeared on social media — Chinese people greeting each other by tapping each other’s feet with their own. There are videos of an Iranian version too.
While China is the epicentre of the outbreak with 80,651 infections and 3,063 deaths on the country’s mainland, Iran has seen 4,747 infections and 124 deaths as per official numbers tracked in real time by Johns Hopkins University (as of 2 pm India time on March 7).
The Chinese government has been promoting the folded-hands greeting as well as the traditional gesture of gong-shou, which is your fist in the opposite palm.
France’s Health Minister has advised people to refrain from the country’s customary double-cheek kiss greeting.
A top Australian health official has suggested that handshakes be replaced with pats on the back, and that people should exercise “a degree of care and caution with whom they choose to kiss”.
The Brazilian Health Ministry has been more blunt — no kissing, on the mouth or anywhere else. Partners are presumably exempt.
Some Arab cultures — as well as Eskimos and the Maoris of New Zealand — have a culture of nose-to-nose greeting. They are best avoided, of course.
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