Has social distancing killed the handshake?

Written by Claire Isaac for Australian Seniors.

With COVID-19 changing lives in so many ways, there are some things that have become our new normal – we all know how it feels to wear a mask, for example, we all have hand sanitiser bottles scattered around the house and the term ‘social distancing’ is now a part of the lexicon.

But along with those additions to our lives, there have been some habits lost, too – some things we may just never get back.

Has social distancing killed the handshake?

Experts are predicting that now we’re living with the pandemic, social activities such as the humble handshake will disappear as we recoil from physical contact to avoid spreading variants of the virus. “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you,” said US chief medical advisor Dr Anthony Fauci in a 2020 interview.

The handshake, of course, has been part of some massive moments throughout history (think British prime minister Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Adolf Hitler in 1938, or Kim Jong-un shaking hands with Donald Trump in 2018, for example) and it’s long been understood as a gesture that establishes a positive connection between two people.

So if it does disappear, it’s hard to fathom what will replace it. We could adopt a friendly tilt of the head as a possible greeting, and of course there’s the already-in-vogue elbow bump, while news site India Today advocated the replacement of the handshake and cheek kiss in favour of a return to the traditional namaste greeting: a slight bow with hands pressed together.

All worthy contenders, but do we really need them? Not necessarily, says Queensland GP and virologist Dr Tammra Warby. “The handshake has a long and ingrained position in society that will be hard to erase, especially after only two years of the pandemic,” she says. “Other greetings, like the elbow bump, just don’t have the same ‘feel’ as a handshake. But by the same token, there’s nothing that says you have to shake a hand you don’t want to.

Should you be shaking hands?

“I think this is a personal decision,” she continues. “Hands are used for everything – from going to the bathroom, opening doors, eating. So if you are touching someone’s hand, it’s safe to assume you are also touching all the people and places they’ve touched.

“As more and more people are vaccinated, however, it’s not as great a risk for transmission, as we know sharing space indoors and breathing in the same air is a higher risk.”

So it’s really up to you to decide what you’re comfortable with. “Perhaps reserve your handshakes for your true inner circle who you know are immunised,” concludes Dr Warby. “Continue to sanitise and wash your hands!”