Τετάρτη, 11 Μαρτίου 2020

The day we stopped shaking hands – and what that means for Europe Natalie Nougayrède Natalie Nougayrède

Europeans have stopped shaking hands. That is, I and almost everyone I have come across has stopped.
At an event last week hosted by the German foreign ministry in Berlin, we shunned the handshake. We huddled awkwardly, nodding heads, or half-jokingly stretched out a leg to touch an interlocutor’s foot as a new form of greeting. In Paris, a fashion and perfume store manager told me sales were badly down because “the usual 30 bus loads of Chinese tourists a day” had completely stopped. A taxi driver said he was keeping his car windows open, despite the cold, to avoid contamination from passengers. As of Monday, French authorities have announced that any event with more than 1,000 people has to be cancelled: book fairs and music festivals are over. Of course the situation in Italy is more alarming, with more than 16 million people in quasi-lockdown, and numbers of infections and deaths still rising quickly. That the Pope decided to speak by video on Sunday for the Angelus ceremony, to protect himself and the congregation in St Peter’s Square from infection, seemed a fitting symbol of what is under way.
But it was the moment I realised people had stopped shaking hands that I felt a personal psychological coronavirus tipping point. As someone living in continental Europe and frequently crossing its mostly invisible borders, I realised coronavirus was about to change our lives in ways we could not have imagined. I started wondering how this new form of social distancing would affect relations among people and among countries, across our complex, diverse and rather tense continent.
In his 1947 work, The Plague, Albert Camus describes the mood within Oran, in Algeria, the city that has been closed off from the rest of the world, as an almost organic phenomenon. By the middle of his powerful, allegorical novel, the population has “been put in step”, people have “adapted”, as one says, “because you couldn’t do otherwise”. At that point Dr Rieux, the hero whose cool-headed efficiency serves as a moral beacon, takes note that “the habit of despair is worse than despair itself”.
Europe is, of course, a much vaster and more varied place than Oran. A mosaic of nation-states, its institutions and founding principles are meant to foster cooperation and collective clout, and to make past hatreds redundant. The litany of crises to strike Europe in the past decade is well known, from the financial and debt crisis to terrorist attacks, the impact of migration fostered by neighbouring wars and poverty, internal social tensions, rampant populism … and some of this is very much still ongoing. l suddenly felt the need to look up the origins of the handshake, which has been a part of European culture for more than 2,500 years and was originally a symbol of peace, showing that neither person was carrying a weapon.
If I had to guess what coronavirus is telling us about ourselves right now, it would revolve around the following notions, and yes, they can be contradictory: fragmentation, togetherness, a reckoning and the force of the individual.
The virus is bringing increased fragmentation to Europe. Travel is down, planes normally full of people are half empty (will Venice soon be devoid of tourists?) and conferences are being cancelled en masse on a continent constantly brimming with them.
Governments are responding in distinct and separate ways, most of them hunkering down into unwelcome “nation-state first” mode. Of course the virus hasn’t struck everywhere in the same way – or not yet – so the responses are bound to vary. But I don’t think I’m the only person to be less than impressed by how weak and distant EU institutions feel at this moment.
Sure, their powers may be limited in terms of a collective public health policy, but when I last looked at the European commission’s website it was hard to find an easy-to-grasp, up-to-date and pragmatic description of the measures taken in each of the member states. Surely that kind of overall picture would be useful.
At the same time, there’s a strange sense of togetherness, as if we were experiencing a new need to connect in an era of looming lockdowns, and it’s happening on a continental scale, not just within the EU. People of different nationalities and different cities, from Copenhagen to Zagreb, from Kyiv to Amsterdam, are asking each other, online and off, about the situation in their patch, how people are coping, what’s to be expected.
A friend living in Sweden told me people had been in denial there before more than 200 cases of coronavirus were detected. It’s possible much of the continent is still in denial, in particular the most eastern parts. Indeed how credible is it that Russia should be virtually spared (only a dozen or so cases officially reported) when its contacts with China are so vast? It’s probable we will soon be reflecting obsessively on the differences between our national health services. Will the continent’s east-west rift get worse when it becomes even more obvious how badly some central European hospitals have suffered from the brain drain of doctors and the resulting lack of resources?
To be sure, there is much confusion – and the difficulty of finding comprehensive, easily accessible, reliable information about the situation across the entire continent, not just in one’s own country, bodes ill for how we might collectively tackle this pandemic. Far-right and other conspiracy theory networks are already busy spreading their nonsense.
Coronavirus has created a moment of reckoning for Europeans. It is bringing a new awareness of how we live: the centrality of our public squares and spaces; the vitality of cafe life; and how highly urbanised we are as a continent. It also brings a new awareness of the principles of free movement of people, our endless forums, cultural gatherings and festivals, our crisscrossing of students, workers, creators, and of course, how we traditionally greet each other, including in many countries by kissing repeatedly on the cheek.
This awareness has nothing to do with EU treaties or the single market (again, coronavirus cares little for EU membership). We’re discovering how precious it is to have the freedom to meet without worrying about anything, the lightness of being that comes from connecting across all our diversity, and the sheer usefulness of knowing more about how each other’s societies work.
But most of all, it’s reminding us of the centrality of the individual. Because fighting coronavirus is, at the end of the day, about the gestures each of us chooses to follow or not – the precautions we are individually responsible for. Across a continent where group identity and nationally closeted mindsets have taken such a toll, we find ourselves, not unlike many of the characters in Camus’s novel (now back in the bestsellers list, apparently), having to embrace anew the absolute, insurpassable, irreplaceable value of the individual. We’ve stopped shaking hands, but perhaps we’re rediscovering something important we had lost touch with.
 Natalie Nougayrède is a Guardian columnist

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