Unhealthy Air Hugs

Unfortunately, as we avoid each other to prevent the spread of disease, which we absolutely should, we are hurting ourselves to varying degrees

By Kellyn Brown

Social norms have been upended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. High-fives and handshakes are out. Wearing masks, gloves and staying away from each other is in. For a back-slapping hugger like myself, this is a tough adjustment.

To be sure, there are larger stakes amid this crisis than whether I can glad-hand my friends and neighbors. But how long will this change how we interact with each other? How will we react to randomly running into an acquaintance at the grocery store or local bar? Are head nods and awkward waves the new go-to greetings?

I hope not. Yet that’s what Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suggested to the Wall Street Journal last week.   

“I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you,” Fauci said. “Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease; it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country.”

In separate comments to the Sinclair Broadcast Group, he made the case again: “We’ve got to break that custom.”

When ABC News pressed him, he hedged, but not much. After explaining that in a “perfect world” not shaking hands would be ideal, he added, “I said that, you know, somewhat serious and somewhat realizing that that likely will never happen.”

President Donald Trump himself mentioned at a press conference last month that “maybe people aren’t going to be shaking hands anymore.”

Perhaps this should be the least of our concerns. The focus should remain on supporting our health-care workers by staying apart and flattening the curve. The focus should also remain on reopening our economy so our businesses can survive and employees can return to work. Who cares if some aspects of social distancing may become more permanent?

Well, I do. And it’s obvious that kids do, too.

Parents now have to tell their children not to do what comes naturally to them: to enthusiastically run up to other children and adults. That’s what kids do, or did anyway. Now they can’t.

And it’s not good for them.

“Preschoolers don’t really know how to social distance,” Collette Box, executive director of Discovery Developmental Center, told the Beacon. “They need physical contact. They need hugs, kisses. They need to hold hands. That’s a part of their brain development. The longer this lasts, the more it will impact young people’s brain development.”

Social isolation hurts adults as well, increasing the risk of health problems, including heart disease, dementia and depression, according to Science Magazine. And while it may help, the technology many of us are utilizing to stay connected can’t replace in-person social interaction.

“When we interact with other people, a lot of the meaning conveyed between two people is actually not conveyed in the actual words, but in nonverbal behavior,” Chris Segrin, a behavioral scientist at the University of Arizona, said. He added that electronic media is “not as good as face to face interactions, but they’re infinitely better than no interaction.”

Unfortunately, as we avoid each other to prevent the spread of disease, which we absolutely should, we are hurting ourselves to varying degrees. And it’s sad to think we may live in a world where air hugs are more common then real hugs, at least for the conceivable future.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.