“Are you hugging?” I ask everyone I meet. Some come at me with open arms while others keep a respectful distance. One friend suggested we adopt an arms-length, side-by-side mutual bum pat.
Social affection was potentially awkward enough pre-COVID-19 but, with a pandemic at play, who we touch, and when, has become a minefield.
Guidelines from NSW Health Stage 2 restrictions recommend we should not use handshakes, hugs or kisses as a greeting and we continue to social distance, staying at least 1.5m away from people we don’t know intimately. Yet interpretations of these guidelines vary greatly.
In our pandemic era, all contact carries risk and we’re hyper-aware – not wanting to be a vector most of all – but also not wanting to make a social faux pas.
“With no local cases and no community transmission, I’m not anxious about getting COVID-19 but I am worried about offending people by being too close or offering affection when it’s not wanted,” one friend explained.
We feel for our friends in Victoria in Stage 4 lockdown and the connection, intimacy and freedom they are missing.
Perhaps that’s why, with Stage 2 restrictions feeling close to the pre-COVID-19 normal we remember, we’re inclined to make the most of the freedoms we have, getting in a quick squeeze before the inevitable happens and we’re back in lockdown.
Our social bonds have always been our biggest strength as a species, enabling us to multiply and take over the world, but we’ve also repeatedly fallen victim to our need to be close, as the spread of disease – especially sexually transmitted diseases and diseases caused by overcrowding – shows.
Last week, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr Theresa Tam, set the internet aflame after she advised that Canadians could still have casual sex with someone outside their household, but should wear a face mask during the act, which sounds ridiculous but at least goes some way towards acknowledging the pull we humans have to each other.
We love each other and, like all herd animals, we show our connection through touch and physical proximity.
“I’ve been shaking people’s hands for 60 years,” a neighbour commented. “It’s really hard to stop now.”
The smallest intimacies, on reflection, could be the way the virus is spread. Yesterday, unthinkingly, I thrust my face into a big bunch of freshly picked freesias and then offered a friend a whiff. But this sharing of (fragrant) air is another good way to spread the virus.
For some, social distancing has been a relief, such as a friend of mine who lives in a small town and has a job that puts him in touch with lots of people.
“I used to spend all my time in Woolies hugging people, now I just do my shopping,” he says. “It’s great.”
Some couples I’ve talked to say affection in the home has amped up as a result of not being able to touch others as much.
“All her affection has been transferred to me,” laughed one woman, standing socially distant from everyone around, with her arm tightly wrapped around her girlfriend.
But what about those who live alone? How long can any person go without a kind pat, a loving caress or a tight hug? Isolation is the worst of social experiments, previously only seen in prisons and situations when a person had no choice but to live alone for extended periods.
As I was slowly weaned off social affection when restrictions first came in, I didn’t miss it right away. But I noticed when we started tentatively hugging close friends again how much I wanted to hug them – how much energy I gained from that golden glow of sharing affection, the eye contact, the grins and the hug itself, whether a brief back slapper or a long squeeze.
As the COVID-19 pandemic trickles on around the world, it’s fair that we begin to wonder if we’ll ever be at ease again with social affection.
Whatever happens, it’s likely the ways we touch each other will be yet another facet of the huge change this virus is bringing.
My five-year-old daughter knows it. As I dropped her off for a play with a friend the other day, she followed me to the door.
“Bye, mum,” she said, seeing me off with a resounding double-handed whack on the bum.