Social life after COVID-19—consigning handshakes to history? | HerCanberra

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Social life after COVID-19—consigning handshakes to history?

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COVID-19 has changed everything—almost overnight.

From whether we have jobs to where we work, to who we are allowed to self-isolate with and how many hours of each day we stay in our homes.

It has closed our borders internationally and almost at the front of our driveways. It has stopped us reaching out to a friend with a hug or to greet another human being with a handshake.

But how will these new normal rules of engagement—both interpersonal and societal—play out in the long term?

Once COVID-19 is controlled, will we ever enter someone else’s personal space, or reach out to touch them in quite the same way again?

Social anthropologist at the Australian National University Professor Simone Dennis has spent her research career investigating the very ordinary interactions of people to understand their underlying logic to try and make sense of them against a background of regulation or enforcement.

She suggests that social cohesion in the post-COVID-19 era could look very different as we renegotiate many of the conventions that have been part of the fabric of our lives. It may even lead to the demise of the handshake.

“Already, this virus has affected some very ordinary social interactions we used to take for granted, for example, imagine meeting someone and going to embrace or kiss them. The mere thought of that makes us instantly recoil. We may well already be asking ourselves how it will be possible to return to normal when even sitting at home watching people hugging and kissing on television makes us immediately recognise ‘No! you can’t do that!’.”

The depths to which these aversions are ingrained really depends on how long and how bad the crisis gets.

She does believe that we will return to some levels of interpersonal contact, “but it is hard to think we won’t bring with us new levels of social awareness about hygiene and personal space given the severity of this current crisis.”

This could mean that a handshake is attended by new rituals of hand sanitising before and after, and we may need to brace for possible handshake refusals. They may also be reserved for known associates rather than strangers.

“Whatever happens there is going to be a warming up period where we decide how much contact is safe. The longer the virus lasts, the longer it will take to restore those impulses to touch and it is likely to be attended by all sorts of weirdness.

“Perhaps the handshake may diminish in social importance as the primary way to greet someone and we adopt something like the elbow tap.”

Simone makes the interesting point that not only are we guarding our personal space zealously but that many of us have even changed our facial expression when we leave our own homes.

“When something suddenly becomes dangerous to you, the principle response to that danger is to limit that contact with the body—and part of that response is demonstrated through the expression of disgust.”

Instinctively, people may be trying to shrink their physical presence and even breath more shallowly in a public area as a way to limit their exposure to possible contagion.

And if people are displaying their disgust as an expression on their face, Simone suggests that it is likely to become a mirrored behaviour which will rapidly become ordinary. So where we have been used to politely smiling at strangers, our faces may now betray our fear. At a time when we most need to connect on a social level (from a safe distance), the opposite may happen as we grimace at the sight of an oncoming person before we even have a moment to think.

Simone said history had a number of pertinent examples where health crises have fundamentally changed our behaviours.

One obvious one is smoking—once an almost obligatory social habit of the 20th century which was eventually proven to be potentially deadly. Now smoking is a highly government-regulated and socially stigmatised activity.

Simone has spent considerable time researching the interface between smoking and social attitudes in the face of scientific evidence, public health measures and government enforcement.

“We have fundamentally changed the way we perceive smoking as a result of the precise distribution of medical information. It used to be that smoke used to be considered a pleasant aroma and direct call to social interaction. Now the smell of smoke is perceived by many to be a direct threat to safety. People will physically avoid going into the path of a smoker.”

The reasons people still chose to smoke were varied and complex. Smokers today largely reside out of the white middle classes where health messages had been widely disseminated and smoking cessation has been very effective.

The AIDS epidemic is another example of disease impacting behaviour. Through the 1980s people were terrified about engaging in sexual contact and didn’t want physical touch with others for fear of transmission. But public safety measures and information introduced a whole new range of sexual health and safety measures which have now become embedded and now, seem second nature.

On COVID-19, Simone says “It is obviously too early to tell whether we are going to internalise this current level of terror so that these new stringent measures of protection and safety become part of our new normal.”

But she does suggest that heightened hygiene practices around handwashing have a good prospect of lodging very firmly in the collective subconscious, alongside keeping a larger interpersonal distance.

“Having gone through this, it is likely to become part of our habitual practice to try and protect our bodies.”

“But touch is fundamental to the way we create the institutions of family or workplaces. We now have much firmer boundaries of family space, and the virus is likely to profoundly change the set of protective behaviours we set around older people and also more vulnerable people including newborns. We are certainly set to be a lot more guarded about who comes into our homes as a result.”

Biological anthropologist Associate Professor Alison Behie specialises in the impact of disasters on pregnancy and considers COVID-19 to have potentially damaging effects on women who are pregnant during the crisis, and possibly their babies into the longer term.

She too, noted that self-isolation measures had the potential to disrupt normal patterns of family care and nurturing of newborns as well as critical support for mothers.

Alison believed women currently pregnant during the COVID-19 crisis would be suffering unavoidable stress as they contemplated childbirth within a health system battling a pandemic. And a natural way of keeping stress levels low, through supportive social networks, was also disrupted.

“There’s no doubt pregnant women would be dealing with elevated stress levels at the moment and our research of pregnancy during natural disasters suggests there could be negative outcomes to the foetus as a result. Severe stress is associated with preterm births and associated health challenges.

“The impact, which starts in utero when a pregnancy environment is not optimal, means these babies could have a different developmental trajectory.”

Studies suggest, for instance, that babies born to stressed mothers can potentially reach puberty at a younger age—an evolutionary response to an inbuilt sense of a stressful environment.

Babies born during the pandemic are also likely to be further affected by minimal or limited connection to other family members, particularly grandparents.

“Given advice on isolating older people and the likelihood that they will not play as big a role in the early development of newborns at this current stage, makes us wonder whether this is going to also have an impact.”

Certainly, there is research that suggests limiting contact with grandchildren has a demonstrable negative impact on the health and quality of life of grandparents—a demographic which also tends to suffer a pre-existing level of social isolation.

Just as worryingly, Alison foreshadows a potential increase in post-natal distress for new mums who are cut off from family, friend caregivers, and who can no longer rely on the bonding and sharing circle of a mother’s group, particularly in those first few, sleep-deprived months.

“All of our social supports which are usually available to help with newborns so mum can get some sleep are now suspended. This could have some very serious repercussions for new mothers in the immediate future.”

Meanwhile, the long-term impact on the health and wellbeing of the so-called Generation C will take some time to determine. And will they grow up in a society where a simple handshake still stands as an acceptable greeting?

Who knows? Our new normal is very much under construction.

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