Noli me Tangere.
October 9. An obvious victim of the quarantine measures imposed since March is touch. Parents cannot hug children and grandchildren living elsewhere. Relatives of the sick or dying cannot give physical reassurance. The bereaved cannot ease their pain by embracing each other.
It is timely, therefore, that this week Radio 4 is broadcasting a set of programmes on the topic.
They are made by Claudia Hammond, a rare presenter capable of moving between academic research and popular communication through her regular BBC series ‘All in the Mind.’
In conjunction with the Wellcome Collection and front-line academics she has conducted global surveys on loneliness (to which I contributed), rest and relaxation, and now touch. Nearly 40,000 respondents from 112 countries answered a series of questions about attitudes and practices.
The subject was chosen as a means of measuring the impact of increased virtual contact through the use of social media, and of growing sensitivity to the need for consent, particularly by women, in physical encounters. The interviews were conducted in the first three months of 2020, and only glimpsed the impact of the pandemic at the very end of the project. In presenting the results, however, Claudia Hammond talked to researchers who are currently focussing on the consequences of current forms of lockdown.
This is the beginning rather than the end of a discussion of this feature of the pandemic, but some truths begin to be visible. In this realm, as in so many others, coronavirus struck populations already struggling with needs and aspirations. Amongst the sample, nearly three quarters thought touch important, and over a half stated they did not have enough in their lives. A mere three per cent believed they had too much. The shortfall was attributed to a lack of social interaction more generally, and a change in attitudes about consensual physical contact. Those with a positive attitude towards touch reported greater wellbeing and lower levels of loneliness.
Michael Banissy, the London University professor in charge of the research, referred to a persistent longing for touch rather than a widespread crisis. The patchwork of further research since the lockdowns began suggests that this longing has grown. An American survey found a shortfall not so much in the levels of contact as in the quality. It is where it is most needed, in care homes, in hospitals, at funerals, that the lack is most acutely felt. There is an interesting suggestion that amidst the social dislocation, the baseline for an acceptable level of physical embrace has risen. As memories of the warmth of touch are re-visited, the enforced restrictions become more painful.
What to do as prohibitions on physical contact are re-imposed? Virtual hugging apparently has some effect. The American survey found that long walks in the open air buffered the consequences of diminished touching. And then there is the sharp rise on both sides of the Atlantic in the purchase of soft, huggable, pets.
The tortoise I once owned (see Diary April 28) won’t do at all.