How to Shake Off a H1N1 Pandemic

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In a practice run for The Big One, the H1N1 flu pandemic is working its way around the world disrupting schools, workplaces, and the economy. As public health officials scramble and the death toll mounts, would it make sense to consider a simple change in habits that could one day save millions of lives and billions of dollars?

In the age of superstition when western civilization passed through the Dark Ages the bubonic plague regularly decimated populations. While the wealthy and powerful would flee to country villas, the unwashed masses would crowd into churches and pray for deliverance. This created a perfect environment for the transmission of the disease as infected fleas hopped among parishioners making their deadly rounds.

Back then ignorance was to blame. What's our excuse now?

Everyone knows that a primary vector for person to person transmission of the flu virus is an arbitrary social custom we perform many times each day. Like programmed robots we do it without thinking. It's a custom so ingrained we feel inexplicably uneasy if we don't do it.

This custom has rational roots as a gesture of peace, though few could tell you what those roots are without resorting to Wikipedia. Fewer still carry bladed weapons, the suspicion of which launched the practice in the first place.

It's the handshake - the global village kiss of death.

Do you remember your father teaching you to "shake hands like a man," making sure to abjure the dreaded wet fish? Keep you grip firm, your eye contact steady, your smile warm. A greeting and a sizing-up rolled into one, this multi-purpose practice seals the deal, settles fights, bids farewell, offers congratulations, breaks down class boundaries, and generally lubricates our daily interactions. It will be hard to let it go. But go it must unless we want to pay the same price those medieval parishioners did.

The Center for Disease Control advises everyone to "wash hands any time after sneezing or coughing, touching someone else's hands, or touching potentially virus-contaminated surfaces." Uh-huh. How practical is this? We can't even get some doctors to wash their hands between examining patients. Yet 300 million people are supposed to run to the bathroom every time they say hi?

It doesn't take an act of Congress to solve this problem, nor a hundred million dollars. All it takes is a little common sense. So how about signing up as a thought leader and starting a fashion trend, distinguishing yourself as a rational, caring person. Stop shaking hands right now. In its place, offer a simple bow.

The bow has a tradition even more ancient than the handshake. It is universally acknowledged as a gesture of respect. It can be used to express greeting, apology, gratitude, remorse, acceptance, and humility. Its depth can be modulated to fit the occasion. Throw in a sideways cock of the head and a mischievous grin if you want to reduce the formality. Unlike the awkward elbow bump, a bow can be sprung on the unprepared without causing alarm. Best of all, a bow doesn't require ready access to a bathroom or little bottles of hand sanitizer.

Bowing is civilized.

Can bowing to someone who extended a hand in greeting rattle them a bit? Sometimes. So use it as a moment to educate and entertain. Keep a flu death statistic at hand to explain your seriousness and a quip at the ready to lighten the moment. My favorites are, "I'm not carrying a knife, are you?" as well as "I only exchange germs with someone I'm having sex with."

Not everyone agrees. Psychiatrist and media talking head Dr. Keith Ablow (that's his real name) is not giving up without a fight. "We've had threats of swine flu before, and we have faced other communicable diseases before without changing our basic pattern of interacting socially," he recently told FOXNews. "Stopping the handshake could have a negative effect. We need human touch and genuine communication more than ever right now."

OK, doc. People also needed to go to church to take comfort from prayer when their neighbors started keeling over from the Black Death. How'd that work out?

Making the transition is just a matter of reconditioning expectations. No, I am not stuck-up. No, I don't secretly dislike you. No, I am not untrustworthy. No, I am not mentally ill. I just don't want to miss a week of work or contribute to unnecessary deaths, particularly my own. Does this make me an awful person?

Everyone has the power take this matter into their own hands, so to speak. But creating a groundswell of rationality that renders bowing socially acceptable will probably require the most powerful force in modern culture. And that, of course, is a campaign by vacuous celebrities. So how about it J-lo, Justin, Whoopi, Brad, Angelina, and Leonardo? Want to save the world? With a little luck one of you might win over the Big Kahuna. Imagine how quickly the custom would spread if Oprah started bowing.

Old habits die hard. But not as hard as young children.

Bill Frezza is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and a Boston-based venture capitalist. You can find all of his columns, TV, and radio interviews here.  If you would like to have his weekly columns delivered to you by e-mail, click here or follow him on Twitter @BillFrezza.

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