The world that rises from the ashes of the coronavirus will be different. We’re already hearing that it will be more remote-based, hands-free, automated, and perhaps drone-filled. In May, I offered three hypotheses about what this health crisis will bring over the long term. In this series, I’ll speculate on what (I hope) won’t survive after the pandemic in the medium term (the period of the virus and its aftermath when—fingers crossed!—we have a vaccine or a cure).
I have been thinking a lot about things that I hope will not make it through this health crisis (at least not in their current forms) and will not recover to anything like their prior scale or prevalence. My undertaking is neither one of predictions, nor is it a wish list. It’s somewhere in between. The focus is to identify unsustainable industries or practices of our old world that were already in decline or otherwise vulnerable before the pandemic and now may face a giant downward ratchet due to the virus. They could be victims of a pandemic-accelerated form of the creative destruction that Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter described, wherein social or economic innovation supplants old and familiar ways with better ones.
In this series, I’ll talk about some urgent and monumentally important issues, but I’ll start with one that’s mostly a curiosity, though one with implications on the spread of disease: the handshake.
“I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again,” director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci said in April.
“I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again,” director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci said in April. He’s right. Ancient and culturally entrenched in the West as a sign of friendly intent (or possibly a subliminal mammalian way to smell each other), the handshake is a filthy custom that spreads disease. Handshakes are swap meets of bacteria and viruses. One study found that a hand has about 150 different bacteria species on it, but each hand has different species. The study of 102 people found more than 4,700 species of bacteria on their hands, and those on a person’s two hands overlap only by about 17 percent. From every surface we touch, we can pick up as many as half of the bacteria species found there.
Among the most common bacteria on our hands is fecal coliform. That’s right: poop bacteria is on most of our hands, not just because about one-tenth of people do not wash their hands at all after using the toilet, according to a 2013 study, but also because 95 percent of people do not wash their hands well. Maybe we’re all washing our hands better now, thanks to education about protecting ourselves from the coronavirus, though it’s doubtful. But even if we are, will we continue to sing Happy Birthday (or Beyoncé) while scrubbing forever? Also doubtful. Once there’s a cure or a vaccine, we’ll get lazy again.
Even among doctors and nurses in hospitals—the people most likely to understand why and how to wash their hands—only about 40 percent do a good job. Some experts argue that we should ban handshakes in medical facilities to save lives, which raises the question, since we’ve already largely unlearned the habit in 2020, why not ban it everywhere? There might be a few exceptions. If you’re, say, signing a new (ahem) climate treaty, go ahead and shake on it for the cameras . . . and then reach for the hand sanitizer. But for everyday interactions, why not bow like people do in Japan, place a hand on your heart, or namaste? Or bump elbows (or feet)? Or give dap by bumping fists, which still involves some hand-to-hand contact but transfers 90 percent fewer germs?
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Shaking hands is habitual in the West. It has also silently and chronically spread illness for centuries. The pandemic has finally broken the habit. I hope we never go back.
Next time: junk mail.