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COVID-19 and the human touch

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many people worried that because of the internet, we could be physically close but socially distant. Today, we are relying on the internet to be socially close despite being physically distant.

People call this state of affairs the “new normal,” and some are already speculating that this might be our mode of engaging with others for months if not years. Amid lingering fears of contagion and social disapproval, will we ever hug, do the “beso,” or even shake each other’s hands, again? Amid Facebook care emojis, Zoom meetings, and even Zoom weddings (congratulations to my friends Jacob Sarreal and Vianka Amurao!), will our “tactile culture” change?

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At the heart of these questions are the ways in which we have used the sense of touch to engage each other. Tactile practices vary from place to place: When I was doing my PhD in the Netherlands, for instance, I had to get used to greeting people with three kisses—one on each side of the cheek then back to the first one—but not without bumping people’s heads in the process. Here in the Philippines, beyond “beso,” “mano,” and sniff kisses, we have, as social scientists like Prof. Michael Tan have noted, a “generally touchy culture” that’s reflected in our body ethics and sensuality; from the way friends and lovers walk magkaakbay or hawak-

kamay, to our modes of transport, traditional way of eating, and even our rich tactile vocabulary: Notice the comfort just by thinking of these words that start with “hi” and “ha”: hawak, haplos, hagod, halik, hilod, hilot, hilom.

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Some scholars have delved deeper into these practices by exploring underlying notions of space and distance. In his work on “proxemics” during the 1960s, the anthropologist Edward Hall proposed four invisible spaces: intimate distance, personal distance, social distance, and public distance, possibly inspiring today’s notion of “social distancing.” Even without these concepts, I think we intuitively know this as when we speak of “personal space.”

Over the centuries, the use of the sense of touch to communicate with and greet (even fight) each other has decreased, and plagues and pandemics alike have contributed to this diminution. The cultural historian Constance Classen notes, for instance, that “experience of quick and deadly contagion during the Black Death… made people fearful of close contact with their fellows.” (Interestingly, the word “contagion” comes from the Latin “contagio,” meaning contact or touch).

The rise of germ theory would add form and shape to these fears. This Pasteurian world

view, which sees germs all over the place, from toilet seats to smartphone covers, has likewise entered our consciousness of space, and we are likely to see more “no touch” technologies that will allow us to avoid handling doors, faucets, and switches. (In the same vein, some are also suggesting the adoption of no-touch greetings like the Thai wai or the Indian namaste.)

But at the same time, history also points to the remarkable tenacity of tactile practices. The 1918 flu pandemic, and to a lesser extent, the 2003 SARS outbreak, saw quarantines and bans on touching, but such rules did not become the “new normal.” Arguably, COVID-19 is a sui generis phenomenon, but the above examples should give us pause in our prognostication of what the future might hold, especially once the pandemic dissipates or when a vaccine is made available.

Regardless, the pandemic will make us realize the importance of human touch. Weeks before the lockdown, I visited the novelist F. Sionil Jose and his wife Teresa, both of whom have been like grandparents to me since my high school days. “I am old and they say I shouldn’t do the ‘beso’ with others,” Manang Tessie, 90, told a visitor in their bookshop, at the time when the threat of a viral outbreak had begun to emerge. “But for him,” she said, pointing to me, “I will make an exception.”

The anticipation of a future where such gestures are the rule again reminds me of what Classen wrote: “Touch does not simply recede from cultural life in modernity, it is reeducated, and while it retreats from some domains, it expands into others.”

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As the pandemic is making us realize, there is something in the tactile that makes it an essential, taken-for-granted, and longed-for part of human experience.

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