Kissing in the time of coronavirus proves problematic for Europeans

Milan: When French President Emmanuel Macron leaned in to give Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte a cheek kiss not once but on two separate occasions during a recent Franco-Italian summit in Naples, it was much more than just a greeting.

French President Emmanuel Macron puts his arm around Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as he shakes his hand and kisses him on both cheeks in Naples on February 27.Credit:AP

It was a signal to citizens not to fear their neighbours as coronavirus spreads – and Italy is established as Europe's hotspot.

That may all change following French Health Minister Olivier Veran's advice on Saturday to cut back on "la bise" – the custom in France and elsewhere in Europe of giving greetings with kisses on the cheeks, along with shaking hands. France, which has had 100 cases and two deaths so far, made a similar recommendation during the swine flu epidemic a decade ago.

Friendly kissing in the time of coronavirus has become a fresh dilemma, especially in effusive southern Europe, with perhaps the power to reshape customs. But even more-reserved northerners are grappling with whether to forgo the hallowed handshake.

Italy's special commissioner for coronavirus, Angelo Borrelli, has suggested that Italians' demonstrative nature could be contributing to the virus' spread, with more than 1100 people testing positive and 29 deaths, almost all in the country's north.

Coronavirus is challenging people in all kinds of new ways, especially when it comes to kissing.Credit:Bloomberg

But there have been no official edicts on the social custom of kissing, which sociologists say is rooted in Italy's Mediterranean culture as well as its strong family and social structure.

"We have a collective social life that is very florid, very expansive. We have lots of contact, we shake hands, we kiss each other, we hug each other," Borelli said. "Maybe it is better in this period not to shake hands, and to not have too much contact, and try to be a bit less expansive, which is different from how I am."

In Germany, where children are taught to shake hands with adults and the firmness of the grip can be seen as correlating to personality strength, health experts and doctors are trying to persuade people to quit traditional etiquette.

At Virchow hospital in Berlin, doctors not only stopped shaking hands with their patients – even non-contagious ones – but are actively encouraging them to follow their example as cases in Germany rise to 66.

Health experts have been warning that shaking hands is a prime way to spread the disease.

In northern Italy, the virus is taking a deep social toll, curtailing the usual opportunities to meet.

With schools, museums and most public offices remaining closed until at least Monday, many people are staying at home and avoiding all social contact.

Italy's financial capital, Milan, is as empty as in the peak summer holiday period, with many companies giving professionals the option to work from home, and some restaurants and neighbourhood shops closed because of a lack of business. Ones that remain open are unseasonably empty.

A deserted Arco della Pace in Milan on Thursday.Credit:Bloomberg

Another meeting involving Pozzi recently in a city office had to be moved to a bar at 5.30pm when emergency measures closed the office, but the bar in turn closed half an hour later because of the same restrictions.

"We ended up finishing the meeting on the sidewalk, talking for an hour in the cold. It was crazy," Pozzi said, adding that "the real Milan is not afraid."

Giampaolo Nuvolati, an urban sociologist at the University of Milan-Bicocca, said Italians' habit of kissing is an expression of trust that is unlikely to be shaken by the virus. But he said something else more fundamental might change.

"Once this is past, we will understand that we cannot confront problems alone, that we need others beyond the family and close group of friends," Nuvolati said. "There is the community, there are institutions. Maybe it will create a broader solidarity, not just restricted to friends and family."


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