Coronavirus challenges how we interact with one another
By Maria Saporta
The coronavirus has thrown me for a loop.
What are we supposed to do? Not shake hands? No hugs? No kisses on the cheek?
As the daughter of European parents, I’m having a hard time adjusting to the new norms of the coronavirus outbreak.
It has caused havoc on a global scale – sent stocks in a downward spiral, altered people’s travel plans for work and pleasure, and brought along great uncertainty for business conferences and social events.
But it also has impacted us on a personal scale. Many people are reluctant to shake hands – opting instead to fist bump or touch elbows or keep their distance altogether. In the past several days, as I’ve been interacting with friends and colleagues, I’ve seen much confusion over what kind of physical contact is okay.
At the Rotary Club of Atlanta on March 2, two infectious disease specialists – Dr. Colleen Kraft, the chief medical officer at Emory University, and Dr. Andrea “Andi” Shane – gave folks advice on how not to contract the coronavirus.
Dr. Kraft said informed folks that common colds and influenza are forms of the coronavirus, even though the current outbreak is a new strain without an existing vaccine.
“You have a way of preventing it,” Dr. Kraft said. “Use good hand and face hygiene.”
Dr. Shane then explained people frequently should thoroughly wash their hands with soap for 20 seconds and then dry them completely. Hand sanitizers also are helpful. People should avoid touching their face, because that’s how the virus spreads.
After the program, I went up to Dr. Shane and asked a question that has been on my mind for years. Aren’t germs good for us?
Let me explain my theory. Being exposed to germs helps us build immunities to various infectious diseases.
When I was in college, I became fascinated with the history of homeopathic medicine, which was developed in the late 1700s. According to WebMD, homeopathy is a medical system based on the belief that the body can cure itself. The basic belief is “like cures like.” People are exposed to diseases in very small doses, and that helps trigger the body’s natural defenses.
Vaccines are an example of homeopathic medicine. We are injected with the a small dose of a dead strain of influenza to help us develop an immunity to the flu.
When I was a kid, I suffered from severe allergies that caused “the wheezes” and asthma. Our pediatrician was Dr. Yampolsky, who was quite old at the time. He tested what I was allergic to, and then I went to his office two or three times a week for months to be injected with small doses of the very things I was allergic to. Eventually my allergy went away.
So, don’t we want to be exposed to germs so we can build up our immunity to whatever diseases are out there?
It just so happened that I saw Tom Price, a physician who served in the U.S. Congress until he was appointed by President Donald Trump to serve as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a post he held until September 2017.
Price is on the board of the Georgia Research Alliance, which met on March 5 at Regions Bank. Before the meeting, I tested my theory on Price.
“You’re right,” Price told me. He then jokingly laughed and said: “It’s good for kids to eat dirt.”
We talked about children who go to daycare, where they get exposed to myriad of diseases, which they often pass on to their parents. But by the time they get to kindergarten and elementary school, they are hardly ever sick because they’ve built up their immunities.
Then I asked him about the coronavirus. And Price said the difference is that it is a new strain, and we as a society haven’t yet had an opportunity to build up our immunities – either through vaccines or by being exposed to the disease. Therefore, it behooves us to be cautious and practice good hand and face hygiene.
I then asked about “germophobes” – people who have an extreme fear of germs and an obsession with cleanliness. By avoiding contact with germs, aren’t they actually making themselves more vulnerable to getting sick because they haven’t built up a natural resistance to infectious diseases?
So, I have decided that instead of being a germophobe, I’m a “germophone” or a “germophile.” They play off the words – Francophone or Francophile – people who have an affinity to France or the French language (yes, that also applies to me).
That means I welcome human contact and interaction – even when people have colds – because I believe that helps me stay healthy.
Still, I do want to be respectful of others and their feelings. If they don’t want to shake my hand, I understand, And I’m also practicing greater hand and face hygiene to make sure I’m not spreading the virus to others.
And I do believe that hugs, where there’s no skin-on-skin contact, seem relatively safe when I want to give friends and colleagues a warm hello.
Let’s hope the current coronavirus pandemic will fade away sooner rather than later – as it gets warmer, as we develop new vaccines and as we build up immunities to the virus.
Until then, we all will have to learn how to safely navigate our interactions with people and their germs.