Dr Muiris Houston: ‘Will we ever shake hands again?’

It looks like the Delta variant requires we continue to avoid this long-time ritual

For the handshake to essentially disappear as part of strict public health guidelines against the transmission of Covid-19 has been a shock. Photograph: iStock

For the handshake to essentially disappear as part of strict public health guidelines against the transmission of Covid-19 has been a shock. Photograph: iStock

 

Some 18 months since most of us shook hands with a fellow human, it’s hard to imagine that such a fundamental part of humanity is gone, courtesy of the Covid-19 pandemic. Part of the triad of preventing infection, along with face masks, social distancing and rigorous hand washing, not shaking hands blocks an established vector for the transfer of bugs.

Now as workers return to offices and friends and family reunite, against the backdrop of high immunisation rates, to shake or not to shake has become a real conundrum for growing numbers of people.

Touch matters. As a basic unit of touch, nothing works as well as the handshake – it allows us to build trust, gesture quickly and universally, and send positive signals of agreement and acceptance. But as meetings, birthdays, retirement parties and even funerals have been shifted online, the loss of connection has been profound. And the easy transmissibility of the Delta variant is raising fresh doubts about the return to something resembling normal.

According to scientists at Public Health England (PHE) there are early signs that people who have been vaccinated against Covid-19 may be able to transmit the Delta variant of the virus as easily as those who have not.

Infectiousness

“This may have implications for people’s infectiousness, whether they have been vaccinated or not. However, this is early exploratory analysis and further targeted studies are needed to confirm whether this is the case.” PHE said that of confirmed Delta cases that had ended up hospitalised since July 19th, 55 per cent were unvaccinated, while 35 per cent had received two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine.

Ritualistic touching on meeting is important in diverse cultures across the world and a great variety of such greetings exist – for example the traditional hongi greeting of the New Zealand Mãori involves pressing noses and foreheads together. And while the handshake still dominates in western culture many popular alternatives, known colloquially as dap greetings, such as the high five and the fist bump, are now commonplace.

The traditional greetings in the East have been non- touch greetings. This was primarily to avoid uncomfortable situations. Body contact is preferred only with people close to you. In Oman, men often greet one another by pressing their noses together. Tibetan monks stick their tongue out to welcome people while Ethiopian men contact shoulders. From bowing in Japanese culture to the customary namaste in India, there’s a wide variety of greetings around the globe.

Gesture of peace

Amidst this diversity, the handshake seems like a gesture that has been around forever. A popular but unproven theory suggests that the handshake began as a gesture of peace. Strangers, by extending their empty right hands, could show that they were not carrying any weapons and bore no hostility toward each other. The shaking was intended to dislodge any blades or knives that may have been covered by a sleeve.

While the origin of the handshake is unclear, the popularisation of the modern handshake is mainly credited to 17th century Quakers. In comparison to bowing, tipping the hat, or kissing the hand, the handshake served as a more egalitarian gesture as it put both parties in equal positions. By the 19th century, the handshake was seen as essential etiquette in the western world.

So for it to essentially disappear as part of strict public health guidelines against the transmission of Covid-19 has been a shock. But the effectiveness of these measures in almost eliminating influenza and the respiratory syncytial virus last winter cannot be denied. And for all the welcome power of Covid vaccination, it looks like the Delta variant requires that we continue to avoid handshakes.

Dr Anthony Fauci, a leading infectious disease expert, said last year, “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you.”

Are you ready to join him and never shake someone’s hand again?

mhouston@irishtimes.com

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