We’ve all experienced it during these times of the coronavirus pandemic: the accidental handshake, hugging our friends or cheek kisses as greetings.
You know you shouldn’t, and yet, it seems almost impossible to resist.
On Friday, during U.S. President Donald Trump’s press conference about the declaration of a national emergency, he could be seen shaking hands with several people.
Later on, he said: “People come up to me, they shake hands, they put their hand out,” Trump said. “It's sort of a natural reflex, and we're all getting out of it. All of us have that problem.”
Trump is not the only one. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told the Dutch to stop shaking hands, before promptly shaking someone’s hand on stage.
Rutte immediately realised his mistake, apologised and went in for an elbow-bump instead.
Can cultural differences influence the spread of a virus?
When Euronews published an article about the comparatively low number of coronavirus deaths in Germany, some social media users suggested that this was due to cultural differences.
One user wrote: “They don’t like to touch each other much! Not much kissing and hugging! Italians, Spanish and French are known for these! Or it’s just my impression.”
In the largest study ever quantifying where people were comfortable being touched and by whom, researchers from the University of Oxford at Finland’s Aalto University found that it highly depends on who touches you.
Researchers also found that Finns turned out to be the people most comfortable with being touched by friends, family and strangers. Italians ranked below Russians on the touchability index.
Someone else suggested, “the German family structure is very different than the Italian family structure. In Germany, a lot of elderly people live on their own and come in contact with fewer people; while in Italy elderly people tend to live together with their families, and so if a young person is infected in Italy then they have more probability to contaminate their grandparents. [...]”
According to Eurostat, 33.7 per cent of the elderly in Germany live alone. In Italy, it’s 30.7 per cent. However, in Spain, even fewer elderly live on their own, namely 24.1 per cent.
Hence, the impression that the virus spreads faster or more because of the care for the elderly doesn’t quite hold.
Even though some of our followers’ arguments didn’t quite hold up in light of the statistics, expert on cross-cultural psychology Michele Gelfand said that our different cultures may be an important factor with regards to the current coronavirus situation.
“When people are in constant contact, we know this makes the pandemic more contagious. We need to, in my view, tighten the rules that communities follow in these extreme times,” Gelfand noted.
However, changing our cultural programming, and that includes handshakes between politicians, business people and everyday encounters, “isn’t easy. But once we understand why it’s critical for our survival, we can do it,” she points out.
Gelfand stresses the urgent need for us to change those cultural habits, which are based on having “a lot of freedom and autonomy”. In order to protect ourselves and others, that may mean that those cultural habits will have to adapt to a “world that has a lot of constraints.”
Can COVID-19 change the way we think about a globalised world?
Particularly Europeans are used to travelling wherever they want to without permission. A continent of open borders has become the norm in our heads.
Applying for visas can seem like a hassle as many have become accustomed to the privileges that come with an EU-passport.
However, the coronavirus pandemic has many countries implement strict travel restrictions.
Denmark, Italy and Spain have practically closed their borders for any traveller from abroad who isn’t a citizen or a resident.
Philippe Legrain is the founder of OPEN, an international think tank on openness issues, and a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics' European Institute.
He told Euronews that restricting freedom of movement, including within the barrier-free Schengen Area, “may sometimes be justifiable on public health grounds [...] it also legitimises the world view of nationalists who see closing borders as the solution to every ill.”
Legrain also pointed out that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has made the argument that closing borders usually isn’t effective.
On its website, WHO says that travel bans can be useful at the beginning of an outbreak, yet they may have significant economic and social impact. Moreover, the organisation says that temperature screening alone, “at exit or entry, is not an effective way to stop the international spread since infected individuals may be in incubation period or not express apparent symptoms.”
“A political gift for nativist nationalists and protectionists”
Meanwhile, Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban has blamed foreigners and migration for the spread of the coronavirus. In light of the pandemic, Hungary has blocked entry to travellers from Italy, China, South Korea and Iran for now.
Legrain notes that the “coronavirus crisis is likely to have a lasting impact, especially when it reinforces other trends that are already undermining globalisation. It may deal a blow to fragmented international supply chains, reduce the hypermobility of global business travellers, and provide political fodder for nationalists who favour greater protectionism and immigration controls.”
“The coronavirus crisis is a political gift for nativist nationalists and protectionists,” he says, adding that “it has heightened perceptions that foreigners are a threat.”
In terms of the effects the COVID-19 pandemic can have on the way we see other nations and international trade, Legrain tells Euronews that the crisis “underscores that countries in crisis can’t always count on their neighbours and close allies for help.
And with India limiting exports of life-saving drugs from its vast pharmaceutical sector, it provides ammunition to those who wish to localise production of all sorts of products on national security grounds.
More broadly, it may strengthen those who believe in a strong government, prioritising societal needs over individual freedom, and national action over international cooperation.”