NEW YORK – I extended my hand to the woman with whom I’d been chatting for the past few minutes. “I’m Virginia,” I said.
To my surprise, she responded not with a handshake but with a closed fist. A white woman of a certain age, she was incongruously going for a fist bump. Her husband recommended it, she explained, to avoid spreading germs. We were, after all, on a cruise ship.
We were sailing from Los Angeles to Hawaii on the same line, Princess Cruises, that had the Diamond Princess ship quarantined in Yokohama with an outbreak of the coronavirus known as COVID-19. As we set sail in mid-February, a ship was either one of the safest places, isolated from potential contagion, or the riskiest. But even without the threat of a potential pandemic, we had reason to be cautious.
Like college dormitories and military barracks, ships crowded with tourists are great incubators of disease, particularly the highly contagious norovirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhea. Come down with it, and your vacation is ruined. If enough people get sick, the whole cruise can come to an abrupt stop. Recently, a norovirus outbreak forced a Princess cruise in the Caribbean to end a day early. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires ships to report sick passengers or crew. Last year, 10 cruises reported that more than 3 percent of their crew and passengers suffered gastrointestinal illnesses; eight were positively identified as norovirus.
On a cruise, you start paying attention to washing your hands properly. Signs in all the bathrooms, including your cabin’s, remind you to wash with soap for at least 20 seconds before rinsing thoroughly. Hand-washing stations and sanitizer dispensers greet you on entering the buffet.
With all those nudges, and the sight of other passengers conscientiously washing their hands, I developed better habits. Rather than a perfunctory soap and rinse, I really did count out 20 seconds, and made sure to get the backs of my hands and between my fingers. I washed my hands after blowing my nose and when I used the bathroom in the middle of the night. Never mind the coronavirus, I didn’t want to spend my vacation throwing up.
Why don’t we act this way all the time? Taking a half minute to wash your hands with soap is a trivial act that costs next to nothing, yet almost no one does it. We’d all be better off if it became a habit. “People who perform proper hand-washing have lower rates of diarrhea, viral infections (like the common cold) and food-borne illnesses,” notes the Cleveland Clinic. “The CDC says proper hand-washing also reduces kids’ absenteeism at school from gastrointestinal illnesses by at least 29 percent.” That was before COVID-19.
Pandemics can dramatically change everyday habits. AIDS certainly did. In the 1977 movie, “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” Diane Keaton plays a woman who lives a double life teaching school by day and picking up men in bars by night. Her conventional would-be boyfriend proves himself a complete loser by wearing a condom, then regarded mostly as an old-fashioned form of birth control. She breaks into hysterical laughter. “Is this supposed to protect you or me?” she says, blowing it up like a balloon.
A decade later, attitudes had changed. In the 1987 summer comedy “Dragnet,” the cool young cop played by Tom Hanks wakes up with his girlfriend, finds his condom box empty, and foregoes morning sex. “The first AIDS-influenced movie has reached the screen,” declared The New York Times. As “safe sex” entered the American vocabulary, real-life habits changed as well.
Washing your hands carefully is, by comparison, a minor shift in behavior. The coronavirus is a reminder that the world is a cruise ship, where we’re all trapped with each other. We need to start acting like it.
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The New York Times and Forbes. Her next book, “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World,” will be published in 2020.
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