Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The handshake after Covid: Welcome norm or dangerous form?

The handshake after Covid: Welcome norm or dangerous form?

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
French President Emmanuel Macron (left) greets US President Joe Biden before a bilateral meeting during the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall. AFP

The handshake after Covid: Welcome norm or dangerous form?

Banished at the start of the pandemic, the handshake is making something of a comeback, thanks to vaccinations and the lifting of social restrictions – but “pressing the flesh” faces an uncertain future.

More than speeches or communiques, one of the most striking takeaways from the Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden summit in Geneva last week was their fulsome handshake in front of the world’s cameras – a rare moment of physical human contact.

A few days earlier, at the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Cornwall, Biden and his fellow leaders were still elbow-bumping away, at outdoor events spaced six feet apart.

Back in the US, most Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted, and vaccinated citizens have been told they don’t need masks – even inside. Social distancing is largely a thing of the past, and unlimited domestic travel is back on.

But many Americans are still treading carefully – mask-wearing is still encouraged in many shops and offices, friends often greet each other with a brief wave, and handshakes are treated warily.

New York telephone technician Jesse Green declines to shake hands with customers, but does with people he knows and who have been vaccinated.

“Because of the pandemic, people are more aware about the way they use their hands,” he said.

For William Martin, a 68-year-old lawyer, shaking hands with anyone, vaccinated or not, is out of the question.

He won’t do so “until it is safe,” he said, adding “and ‘safe’ will not be determined by some government”.

Some US companies and organizations are using colored bracelets to allow employees, customers or visitors to signal their openness to contact: red, yellow or green, from the most cautious to the most comfortable.

Hugging is generally out of bounds, and kissing to greet someone – never common in the US – is almost unimaginable for most.


Jack Caravanos, a professor at New York University’s School of Global Public Health, said wariness of handshakes does not exactly match the evidence.

Covid-19 “is poorly transmitted by surface contact and is essentially an airborne virus, [so] the scientific basis for no skin contact is moot,” he said.

“However, the common cold, influenza and a host of other infectious diseases are transmitted by touch, therefore eliminating handshaking will overall have a positive public health impact.”

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his spouse greet EU Council president Charles Michel and his partner as they arrive at the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall. AFP

Tapping into the wider health benefits, many experts would not mourn the death of the handshake.

“I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you,” White House pandemic adviser Anthony Fauci said last year as the virus took hold worldwide.

Allen Furr, professor of sociology at Auburn University, said: “We’ve always had germophobes, people who don’t like to touch people because they see everything as a contagion.

“We may have some more of those, because of the psychological effect that safety is equated with not coming close to people – that may stick in some people’s minds.”

A human ritual

Shaking hands is a ritual taught to children by adults, but after 16 traumatic months it is one that could weaken if it is not passed down to the next generation, he said.

Other forms of greeting such as fist-bumping, a brief wave, or alternatives such as an Indian-style “namaste” could become increasingly popular compared with the hearty grip of a “manly” handshake.

But “so much will be lost if we didn’t shake hands,” mourns Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick, founder of The Etiquette School of New York.

“You can tell a lot about a person by their handshake. It’s part of body language – people have lost jobs in the past because of bad handshakes.

“When you touch someone, you’re showing you trust them, you’re saying ‘I’m not going to harm you.’”

As with everything, handshaking today has “become a political thing”, suggests New York paramedic Andy McCorkle, with some people shaking hands as a sign of defiance against the government and Covid-19 restrictions.

“I feel like it’ll be solidified psychologically, to keep one’s distance,” he said.

The pandemic has upended many things about everyday life, and the handshake is just one of them – the test will be to see if humans need it back.

Furr, for his part, expects the handshake to endure.

“It’s just kind of too important a ritual in our culture,” he said.


  • PM imposes nationwide Covid restrictions, curfew over Delta scare

    Prime Minister Hun Sen late on July 28 instructed the municipal and provincial authorities nationwide to strictly enforce Covid-19 measures including curfew for two weeks from July 29 midnight through August 12 to stem the new coronavirus Delta variant. The instruction came shortly after he issued a directive

  • Two luxury hotels latest quarantine options for inbound travellers

    The Inter-Ministerial Committee to Combat Covid-19 has designated two luxury hotels as alternative quarantine options for travellers who wish to enter Cambodia through Phnom Penh International Airport – Sokha Phnom Penh Hotel & Residence and the Courtyard by Marriott Phnom Penh. In a notice detailing guidelines issued

  • Provinces on Thai borders put in lockdown amid Delta fears

    The government has decided to place several border provinces in lockdown for two weeks in a bid to prevent the new coronavirus Delta variant spreading further into community. According a directive signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen late on July 28, the provinces include Koh Kong,

  • Visa A holders get to quarantine at Himawari Hotel

    The Ministry of Health has permitted foreign diplomats, UN and International NGO officials to undergo quarantine at Himawari Hotel in the capital in case they do not have a separate place suitable for this purpose, but the government would not be responsible for the expenses.

  • Jabs for kids bring hope for school reopenings

    Cambodia is tentatively planning to reopen schools – at least at the secondary level – when the vaccination of children aged 12-17 is completed, even though daily transmissions and deaths in other age groups remain high. Schools across the country have been suspended since March 20, one month

  • China denies Mekong hacking

    As the US and its allies joined hands last week to expose what they allege to be China’s Ministry of State Security’s malicious cyber activities around the world, the attention also turned to Cambodia with the US Department of Justice claiming that four