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11/5/2020 / Issue #030 / Text: Alice Mechoulam

Touching culture in a post-pandemic world - a reflection

I miss bars, crowded concerts, dance clubs, and even sometimes University. But in these hard and weird times, the lack of physical contact is the thing that I most struggle to adapt to. From the start of what felt like an episode of Black Mirror, observing this shift in our culture of touching has brought me to many reflections. How do people cope with this lack of physical touch? Once this is all over, in a post-pandemic world, are people going to be afraid to touch one another?

One morning I stumbled across a very interesting “Op-Art” illustration by Kristen Radtke in the New York Times. It was called “What do we lose when we stop touching each other?” The writers/illustrator talks about touch not as something we want but as something we need. This triggered my curiosity. I researched and learned that physical touch, such as a simple hug, greatly contributes to our physical and mental health. I now know that physical touch triggers: oxytocin; the “love hormone” serotonin; a natural antidepressant; and dopamine, the pleasure chemical. It also contributes to reducing feelings of social exclusion and loneliness. Through this illustration I discovered the concept of “skin hunger”, the idea that we desire being touched, that we have a need that brings us to touch others, and that when we don’t fulfill this desire our skin literally “starves.”

“But in a pandemic, the very thing we’re biologically programmed to need is also what can harm us most,” says Radtke. Proximity and touch are forbidden in order to avoid spreading virus. WASH YOUR HANDS, don’t gather with friends or family, practice “social distancing.” How do we greet each other in these situations? “Let’s touch our elbow instead of kissing or hugging!” How do we show affection towards our loved ones? “Let’s ‘hug’ from a 1,5 meters distance instead!” With time, what at first seemed like funny new habits made me think that this might be something we’ll get used to doing, that even when this crisis ends these habits may remain in our individual cultural interactions. I know that social distancing is what we need to do in order to protect others and ourselves, but, personally, it is also the hardest thing for me to accept in my everyday life.

Many picture the end of this crisis as an epic event. They imagine that we will break free onto the streets, singing, dancing, hugging each other like we never did before. But there are other post-pandemic scenarios. We might be afraid to touch, and people are going to be so used to meeting virtually that they will not see the point in going back to how it was before. Perhaps technology will replace direct human contact even more than before. These fears - they’re fears to me - go through my mind every day. Will we be afraid of touching one another? Will we freak out as soon as a stranger in the street accidently bumps against our shoulder? I hope not, but this crisis may have enormous consequences on our behaviour.

In an essay, French philosopher Roland Barthes cites a buddhist koan, or short story: “the master keeps the head of the disciple under water, for a long, long time; little by little the bubbles become scarce; at the last moment, the master takes the disciple out, reanimating him: when you will have desidered the truth as much as you desired the air, then you will know what it is.” This quote gave me hope. It made me think that the absence of physical touch might allow us to reconstitute the true meaning and value of receiving and giving physical affection. As it is in our nature, even in the worst case post-pandemic scenario, with time we will find our way back to how it was before. Or even better than it was before, appreciating every single hug, every little human touch, even from a stranger.

In the meantime, my advice for people who are self isolating: hold onto the importance of physical touch through other means. Take long, warm showers (or a bath, if you have one), wrap yourself in cozy blankets, hold on to your pet. Call your loved ones often, and when you’re in the position to see them regularly, remember how much you needed their touch when you couldn’t have it.