GENEVA/PARIS – King Henry VI of England banned kissing in 1439 to battle the plague. As the world confronts the coronavirus spreading from China, some health authorities are again urging people to refrain from physical displays of affection.
Epidemiologists say limiting contact could help slow the march of COVID-19, a disease that’s turned up in dozens of countries in just two months and killed more than 3,000 people. Americans ought to think twice about bro hugs and high fives, they say, while the French and Italians might want to reconsider their traditional pecks on the cheek.
“If coronavirus is circulating in your community, it’s a very prudent thing to do,” said Michael Osterholm, an expert on infectious diseases at the University of Minnesota. “It’s one of the few things you can do yourself to actively reduce your risk.”
In Italy, where infections are surging and 34 have died from a virus that spreads through droplets contained in coughs and sneezes, people are starting to embrace the advice. Giorgia Nigri, a 36-year-old economist in Rome, said people have become less willing to pucker up.
“People in groups have started suggesting we don’t give each other the double kiss on the cheek as a greeting or goodbye anymore,” Nigri said. “I was caught off guard and upset by that at first. But I suppose in larger groups, especially with strangers, it makes sense.”
Elsewhere in Europe, such suggestions have provoked surprise or derision: In the U.K. over Valentine’s Day, tabloids including the Daily Mail and the Sun bemoaned virologist John Oxford’s advice that Britons should remain “standoffish” rather than engaging in touchy-feely greetings.
Some churches in Italy have stopped placing communion wafers on the tongue, putting them in people’s hands instead. Others have canceled services altogether. Public health authorities in Singapore, India, Russia, and Iran have gone public with calls to avoid hugs, kisses and handshakes.
“We needn’t alter our habits for the rest of our lives,” Oxford, who teaches at Queen Mary University in London, said in a phone interview. “All I’m suggesting is until this crisis is resolved.”
That may be easier in countries such as Japan where the traditional greeting is a bow, and physical contact among colleagues or business partners is shunned. Some social historians say curtsies may also have evolved in Europe as a response to the declining popularity of greeting people with the lips.
Chinese President Xi Jinping amused a crowd in Beijing in a rare public visit earlier this month by saying it’d be better not to shake hands.
The World Health Organization doesn’t go so far as to recommend a blanket halt to hugs and kisses, but its guidelines imply that it might not be such a bad idea.
One meter away
The Geneva-based body recommends avoiding physical greetings with people showing symptoms and to keep at least 1 meter of social distance.
Bruce Aylward, head of a fact-finding mission the WHO and China sent to the outbreak’s epicenter of Wuhan, on Feb. 24 praised China’s social distancing and self-protection measures for slowing the spread of the outbreak. Most people in China who caught the novel coronavirus got infected by family members, he said.
Arnaud Fontanet, an epidemiologist who heads Institut Pasteur’s Global Health department in Paris, also advises “common sense measures” like coughing in one’s sleeve, relying on single-use tissues and washing hands frequently.
Some scientists are concerned the virus could also be shed via feces or through particles so small they can get through common surgical masks. Unlike its cousins severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome, better known as SARS and MERS, the coronavirus doesn’t cause obvious symptoms in everyone it infects, giving the pathogen a stealthy advantage.
“This war involves everyone, not just people in hazmat suits or scientists,” Oxford said. “You only need one person to mess up the thing and you’re in trouble.”
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