The Great Disrupter

Thanks to vaccinations and the lifting of social restrictions, the handshake is making a comeback though ‘pressing the flesh‘ still faces an uncertain future. In the recent summit that US President Joe Biden had with Russian President Vladimir Putin, their fulsome handshake could send a message that the old way of greeting may make a comeback.

The Great Disrupter

It has been more than a year since an outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan, China. Declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020, it has now infected more than 179.3 million people in 223 countries and with 3.9 million deaths as of 23 June. More will perish in the coming days/ months despite the vaccine drive in full swing in many countries. India too has lost close to 400,000 of its people as the second wave was particularly severe. Though Covid-19 appropriate behaviour by people is being advised, there are always violators. If this trend does not change, a third wave could be more devastating.

This commentary shall address two issues: the drive to vaccinate as many people as possible to combat the virus, and how Covid-19 has emerged as the biggest disrupter in human lives and how lifestyles have changed almost overnight.

First, like other countries, India too has launched a massive vaccination drive and aims to inoculate all of its 1.1 billion adults by the end of the year. So far, it has vaccinated only four per cent of its people compared to New Zealand, which has inoculated all its citizens.


Two domestic manufacturers are already on the job. India has also roped in a Russian company to get the Sputnik 5 vaccine. Imports have started and domestic production in collaboration with Dr. Reddy’s Lab in Hyderabad is in the news. The government is coordinating on issues such as pricing, sourcing, storing, supplying and other related issues in cooperation with the states.

On 21 June, International Yoga Day, muted this time by the virus, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the “protective” properties of yoga against the virus. The worrying fact is that the vaccination drive significantly slowed at a time when the second wave was causing havoc due to a shortage of jabs and hesitancy.

The sudden surge in the April/May period overwhelmed the health care system in many places.

There is also a segment of people who still do not have confidence in the vaccines providing full protection. This is another bother. There are reports that even medical doctors who had taken both the jabs have fallen victim to the virus and people are doubting the vaccine’s efficacy and developing cold feet. In Marxist jargon, Covid-19 can be explained as a “socialist” virus that does not distinguish between race, religion, caste, nationality, status, etc. while attacking. While it could take some time for doubters to come on board, in the Philippines President Duterte has threatened that those who refuse to take the jab shall be put in jail with a view to enforcing compliance.

With less than a month away to go for the Olympic Games to begin in Tokyo, Japan is also on an overdrive with its vaccination programme. Though there still remain good reasons to cancel the Games, Japan and the IOC have decided to take the risk to go ahead as sane counsel for cancellation did not merit much consideration. This is a gamble that is not worth taking, as protecting human lives should have got precedence over hosting the Games for assumed glory for Japan. The less said on this the better.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has also accelerated the vaccination efforts and aims to complete the vaccination programme by November 2021. Japanese universities and companies have also begun their own drives for on-site inoculations. The initial target is to inoculate the under-65s. As an aging society, the onus lies on Suga to protect the elderly citizens. There are already over 65,000 centenarians in Japan and the number is increasing. This is a challenge for Suga.

The second issue to be addressed is how Covid-19 has been the biggest disrupter in daily lives. The common practice of greeting people with a handshake has lost its lustre as people are refraining from touching another person’s hand for fear of contracting the virus. On the contrary, other forms of greeting such as fist-bumping have emerged as increasingly popular.

However, thanks to vaccinations and the lifting of social restrictions as the virus has started to ebb, the handshake is making a comeback though “pressing the flesh” faces an uncertain future. In the recent summit that US President Joe Biden had with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, their fulsome handshake in front of the world’s cameras could send a message that the old practice of greeting can be adopted. This was a rare moment of physical human contact. It was a dramatic turnaround from the experience at the G-7 summit in Cornwall where the leaders were seen elbow-bumping and maintaining a six feet distance at outdoor events.

Though the virus is still there, the US has lifted most Covid-19 restrictions. Vaccinated citizens have been told they do not need masks. Social distancing has become a thing of the past and domestic travel is back in full swing. But the fear still remains in minds of the people. Friends greet each other with a brief wave and handshakes are still frowned upon.

Hugging, generally a common practice in many countries including India, is out of bounds. Prime Minister Modi’s “hug diplomacy” is unlikely to make a comeback. Kissing to greet someone, never common in the US but very common in Australia and in Europe, is almost unimaginable for most.

However, this has unlikely deterred younger lovers. On such occasions, virus fears just disappear. Also, the fear of transmission of the virus does not seem to have prevented molestations and rapes, though the numbers of cases have either fallen or are being underreported.

While the handshake is unlikely to make a comeback any time soon, other forms of greeting such as fist-bumping, brief waves, or alternatives such as an Indian-style “Namaste” could become more popular. The pandemic has upended many things about everyday life and therefore has become the biggest disrupter of human living style. Willy-nilly mankind needs to be prepared to accept new rituals.

The writer is Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.