May 22, 2024


Savvy business masters

Commentary: Should you refuse handshakes and hugs amid the COVID-19 outbreak?

It’s about balancing the risk of infection with the negative consequences of breaching social etiquette, says an observer.

Two person shaking hands at job interview, work meeting

(Photo: Unsplash/rawpixel)

LAS VEGAS, Nevada: We are exposed to numerous viruses from our day-to-day interactions with other people all the time. 

However, our risk of being infected by a simple greeting usually isn’t in the forefront of our minds.

The spread of COVID-19 has changed that. Conferences have banned handshakes, churches have changed their worship services, and even politicians have changed the way they greet each other. 

But what’s the risk in a simple hug or a handshake?

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If someone’s hand is covered in virus because they coughed into it right before they shook your hand, it is no different than handling their dirty tissue. 

Your hand is now contaminated, and if you absentmindedly rub your eye or touch your mouth, you have potentially just infected yourself.

You are relying on other people to wash their hands in order to protect you, but we know that people are terrible about hand-washing, even after using the bathroom. The simple fact is that we put ourselves at some risk of infection every time we interact with other humans.


So what should you do if a stranger extends their hand to greet you or a friend tries to hug you?

PM Lee Hsien Loong Changi Airport Terminal 3 (5)

PM Lee Hsien Loong speaks to trolley services staff members at Changi Airport Terminal 3. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Pulling your hand away from that potential big sale or recoiling in shock from your friend’s embrace is probably not the best approach. It’s about balancing the risk of infection with the negative consequences of breaching social etiquette.

Health experts around the world have been recommending that people reduce unnecessary physical contact with other people, such as shaking hands or kissing on the cheek. Even the French have recommended no cheek kissing.

You can still greet each people warmly and politely without touching them, by bumping elbows or fists, tapping feet (the “Wuhan shake” popular on social media), simply waving hi, or one of the many other creative suggestions that are popping up online.

READ: Commentary: COVID-19 – research shows proper hand drying is also vital

This isn’t about making extreme changes to our social interactions; it’s about taking simple steps to help reduce your risk of disease.

The other important step in protecting yourself is to frequently wash your hands or use hand sanitiser if soap and water are not readily available. 

This is a critical part of protecting yourself, as you can’t introduce a virus into your mucous membranes if you have removed it from your hands.


As this outbreak progresses, maybe we will see the refusal to shake hands not as a snub, but as an expression of genuine concern for each other’s health.

IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva and World Bank Group President David Malpass bump elbows

IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva and World Bank Group President David Malpass bump elbows at the end of a joint press briefing on COVID-19 where they called for an all-out, coordinated global response AFP/NICHOLAS KAMM

If you are worried about offending someone by using hand sanitiser after shaking someone’s hand, offer them some of your sanitiser as well. 

Change the conversation and help make having clean hands something that is not only important to you, but socially desirable as well.

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Brian Labus is Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.

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