US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greet the crowd during a 'Namaste Trump' rally on February 24, 2020. 'He is actually a very, very strong person, very tough,' declared Trump. Photo: AFP / Money Sharma

So world leaders have finally gotten the memo: no handshakes. It took the most widespread health crisis in human history for more people to figure it out – how certain forms of exchanging greetings are more a cheery exchange of dirt, germs and disease. The novel coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease Covid-19 has taught the lesson.

The lesson was self-evident to ancient wisdom and modern science: Bodily contact can be very pleasurable and considered courteous but is also scientifically proven as very unhealthy.

About 20 years ago, I came across a medical study that said the human hands (palms) contain more germs than a toilet seat. Since then I have written articles about giving up the handshake. I adopted a closed fist instead of the open handshake, if not the traditional Indian or Asian form of greeting: the namaste.

Friends sometimes asked, baffled: “Hey Raja, why don’t you shake hands?” The answer is in the common delusions that pass as accepted social practice. Why on earth should we equate bodily contact with strangers as politeness and courtesy?

As a greeting or farewell, the sincere “namaste,” “namaskar” or “vannakam” (in Tamil) has to rank topmost among the most gracious of human gestures: conveying humility, respect and goodwill to a fellow being. It beats the handshake hollow.

I have no idea how, why and when the handshake first became the global gesture of greeting. But lethal Mr Covid-19 has suggested it may be time to bid a farewell namaste to the handshake.

The handshake easily transfers such lethal micro-creatures as the Escherichia coli (E coli) bacterium, found researchers David E Whitworth and Sarah Mela of the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, Aberystwyth University, Wales. The American Journal of Infection Control published their study in July 2014.

The longer and stronger the handshake, possibly more dirt and sweat lovingly and warmly gets exchanged. No point exchanging grime in the guise of greeting.

Avoiding the handshake is not easy at the start. One of two things happens: a) the handshake has become such a reflex action on meeting someone that the right hand almost automatically extends, or b) refusing to shake hands by ignoring a proffered hand obviously gets interpreted as an insult, rudeness, arrogance and very bad manners. Or, c), in real time, it’s a bit difficult to tell the other person, “Shaking hands may mean we exchange both greetings and germs.”

So I have tried another option during the past few years: a closed-fist greeting. The person’s hand in greeting touches my enclosed palm.

The closed-fist greeting, the Welsh Institute of Biological and Environmental Research found, is 20 times as hygienic as the handshake.

When thinking of the handshake, just think of all the possible places where the other person’s hand or fingers could have recently touched or scratched. That is also why the term “dirty money” can be quite literal, as in coins and currency notes passing through thousands of hands.

Thanks to Covid-19, by the year 2030 the handshake might have as much social approval as animal sacrifice and sniffing cocaine.

Even now, if world leaders insist on continuing their frequent handshaking ways, they could include among their entourage a water basin carrier for them to wash and disinfect their hands frequently.

The infamous Roman governor Pontius Pilate washing his hands takes a whole new non-biblical meaning, in the new world order of coronavirus-induced better health sense.


Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly for the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, The Hindu, Indian Express, and others. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.