The handshake after COVID: Good riddance or welcome back?

NEW YORK (AFP) – 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 Russian President Vladimir Putin and United States (US) President Joe Biden summit in Geneva this 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.

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

United States President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they arrive at Villa La Grange in Geneva. PHOTO: AFP

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 organisations are using coloured 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.

Professor at New York University’s School of Global Public Health Jack Caravanos 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.”

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