The Coronavirus Covid-19 has come as a shock to us all and as we dutifully wash our hands and cough into our sleeves for safety we're left wondering "are we really still shaking hands?!"
At the time of publication, there are 793 cases of active infection in the United States, 24 in Ireland, 373 in the United Kingdom and 10,149 in Italy, which is now in total shutdown. The Coronavirus Covid-19 is on the brink of becoming a pandemic one we need to take seriously. So what about handshaking?
On Monday, in Germany, we saw that handshaking might be put on hiatus, as Chancellor Angela Merkel offered her hand to Interior Minister Horst Seehofer who swiftly declined. She immediately put her hands up and said "That was the right thing to do."
Firstly, in a time when we're being told to wash our hands for at least 20 seconds with warm water and soap to banish bacteria, it seems absurd that people are still shaking hands (don't start us on public door handles) but why is it that handshaking is so important, especially informal and professional greetings.
The history of handshaking
Archaeological evidence shows that the act of handshaking dates back to at least the 5th century BC, in ancient Greek. It came to be because of the traditional combat of sword fighting.
Given that 90 percent of the world is right-handed, swords were usually carried in a case (called a scabbard) on the left side of the body with their right hand free to draw the sword.
By offering your right had to the person you approach, to shake hands, you demonstrate that you come in peace... and aren't holding a weapon.
Manners expert William Hanson told the BBC: "A handshake showed you meant the other person no harm. It's important today as it's a sign of trust and friendship."
Handshaking and the coronavirus
Physical contact spreads germs. That's the main message from the experts but at the same time, during the phase of containment, those who are not infected or at risk are advised to continue life as normal. It seems like mixed messages.
Speaking to Radio 4's show Today, Prof Paul Cosford, emeritus medical director for Public Health England said "We do need to get to a point where we reduce social contact if we see more widespread infection. At the moment, we’re in the position [that] we need to continue life as normal, but we need to be prepared for the actions that we may need to take.”
It's not only state figures like Chancellor Merkel who are learning new behaviors. Already church communities are taking precautions. Congregants with coughs and flu symptoms have been asked to to refrain from the “sign of peace” handshake. They're also being asked to receive the communion host in their hands, rather than on their tongues. In the Church of England, those with cold or flu symptoms are being asked to refrain from taking wine from the common cup.
If a country moves from the containment stage of an outbreak to a full-on outbreak these restrictions could change and the actions could be entirely canceled, or Masses banned.
Covid-19 friendly handshake alternatives
On average we carry 3,200 bacteria from 150 species on our hands. A handshake transfers twice as much bacteria as a high-five or a fist-pump.
Social etiquette consultant Jo Bryant told the Guardian that the United Kingdom may have a slight advantage over its European more touch-feely nations when it comes to handshakes and greetings. She commented, "We do like our personal space”. The same could be said of the Irish.
So what's the alternative to a handshake in this Coronavirus world? In Japan, people greet each other with a bow. In Thailand, they press their palms together in a prayer-like action. In Ethiopia, people touch elbows and then bang opposite shoulders. The options abound.
What might evolve is cultural shift perhaps we'll steer away from the common handshake. The best thing to do for now if you're in a professional or more formal situation is to play it by ear and if a handshake is off the table be like Merkel, put your hands up and say, for now, it's for the best.