Will Coronavirus Change Us?

Image via Desirée Tapia for The Americano


By Yehudit Mam

March 13, 2020

Hands have been extended in my direction every time I’m introduced to someone new here in Mexico. How am I supposed to not extend my hand back?

I arrived in Mexico City on March 2 to see my family and friends and to travel to the beach for some R&R. Coming from New York, I was a bit anxious about being shunned as the foreign national who could be unwittingly infecting everyone with that pesky Coronavirus. In my mind, I was going to stop people on their tracks as they approached to kiss and hug me, and gently and good-humoredly bow in the Japanese fashion, so that they would not be afraid of me. I soon realized that this is practically impossible to execute. Before I could erect any kind of polite barrier, I was swarmed with warm hugs, kisses, and handshakes by everyone I met. 

Latinos consider ourselves passionate, warm people. We kiss, we hug, we have no compunction on taking a bite from someone’s taco, pastelito or tamale—infectious diseases be damned. 

It has always driven me up a wall when entire extended families, from the grandparents to the godparents, and generations of their spawn, descend en masse at the airport to greet a single returning relative. In my fantasy, when I became Queen of the World, I would ban this impractical custom.

With Coronavirus, I thought, perhaps this and my other fantasy—banning kissing and shaking hands as a way of greeting everyone—would finally come into effect. I am not a germaphobe (what Latino is?), but it has always struck me as utterly unnecessary to exchange germs just to say hello to total strangers. Why can’t we just respectfully bow or put our hand to our hearts instead? 

Well, I have been strongly disabused of this notion. As Coronavirus rages on, hands have been extended in my direction every time I’m introduced to someone new. How am I supposed to not extend my hand back? People may think I’m rude. No friend has dared to keep their distance in person. I myself have found it extremely difficult to refrain from kissing and hugging friends, cousins, nephews, etc. This is based on purely empirical evidence, but my theory is that we cannot stop ourselves from being warm, one, because we are genuinely happy to meet people; and two, because we are loath to offend. 

Culture is a powerful thing. It took the Chinese government a national pandemic to ban the consumption of wild animals. And still, it did not ban the sale of those same animals for medicinal purposes, which they have used for thousands of years. Apparently, in Italy, to completely ignore official pronouncements and do whatever you damn well please is a custom named “furbizia.” I read that the Prime Minister of Italy begged his entire country not to try to outsmart everyone and for once obey the advisories. 

Latinos are not dissimilar. We are skeptical of authority and it seems to me that we’d rather die (figuratively speaking) than to be perceived as cold, standoffish and rude. In Mexico, this is compounded by a culture of indirection. No one can easily say “I adore you, but stay away from me.” 

Humans are social animals. It’s very hard for us to isolate ourselves. Now that we may actually die from human warmth, will we change? Will this new circumstance make Latinx more aloof? 

I had dinner with some of my friends from high school. Several claimed other engagements and I wonder if this was their polite way to say “no way, José.” Others happily showed up. Only one was ready to bump elbows. As for the rest, the evening was a hugfest, with some friends brazenly throwing caution to the winds and others harboring our fears deep in our hearts as we hugged and kissed away. 




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