Early on in the pandemic, I became hyper-aware of the ways I was using my hands. After seeing an infographic on a friend’s Instagram story that said that one of the best ways to defend oneself from COVID-19 was to not touch their face, I became paranoid that I would slip up and rub my eye or nose and bring illness to my entire family. That was why, when my school sent out a pamphlet to each of its students titled, “How To: The Essential of Staying Safe During Covid!” I paid particular attention to the instructions on proper hand-washing techniques.
Around the infographic were small smiley face emojis wearing masks and giving me thumbs up. I found it oddly ironic at the time that cartoons were so openly showing off their hands as if they weren’t harbingers of danger. The small infographic, however, was much more serious, breaking down the process of hand-washing into five steps: turn on hot water, grab the soap, scrub your palms and fingers, wash your fingernails and thumb and finally, wash your wrists. “The whole process should take 20 seconds.” I thought I had been washing my hands properly for my whole life, but here, right in an infographic inspired by WHO, I saw that I was wrong: I was forgetting to scrub my wrists.
That night, while on a study Zoom with my friends, I brought up the topic of hand-washing. None of them had been aware that they were supposed to scrub their wrists either. Each of us happened to have immunocompromised individuals in our families and were also responsible for getting groceries. In these unique positions, where we simultaneously had to balance going out in public with interacting with an immunocompromised individual, we recognized this extra burden that we had upon our shoulders. We had a responsibility not only to ourselves but to our entire family unit to be particularly careful when taking preventative measures against COVID-19. That’s why, in an attempt to reduce our anxiety surrounding the disease, we all agreed to keep checks on one another’s washing techniques.
Through our efforts, we found ourselves creating a mini-ritual each of us could follow when we got home from the grocery store. The directions were as follows: As soon as we get home, we must make a beeline to the closest bathroom. Take extra care not to touch the faucet with your hands, as you want to ensure you are not spreading any remnants of disease to your home surfaces — of course, at the time, we had no clue COVID-19 could not be transmitted this way. Now, turn the sink on, making sure to use the hottest water possible, and begin to scrub. Make sure to sing the “COVID song” at least two times before turning off the faucet and drying your hands on a clean towel.
As a part of our cleaning process, we decided to introduce an element of fun into the otherwise dreary act of hand-washing. Sung to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance”:
Just wash, gonna be okay! Wa wa wa wa wa wash
Just wash, come on wash those hands, baby! Wa wa wa wash
Just wash, gonna be okay!
Wa wa wa wa wash!
As stupid as it may seem now, we saw this process of singing the song two times as central to our hand-washing routine. If we didn’t scrub under our nails and wrists, use antibacterial soap or finish the process of singing the song, we couldn’t consider ourselves to be fully clean individuals. Then, to finish the process, we would squirt on a bit of hand sanitizer, just to be safe.
I have come to consider this more of a ritual than a routine because the process was about physically and mentally cleaning oneself of the disease we may have come into contact with outside. In Mary Douglas’ “Purity and Danger,” she compares hand-washing to more ritualistic processes of purification: “On this view, our washing, scrubbing, isolating and disinfecting has only a superficial resemblance with ritual purification. Our practices are solidly based on hygiene; theirs are symbolic: we kill off germs, they ward off spirits.” While in Douglas’ view hand-washing and scrubbing are only surface-level forms of cleansing, I experienced them differently. By washing my hands, I was warding off not only germs but also all the fears that came along with getting COVID-19: isolation, death, loss, grief. For me, these germs were indeed a form of spirits, and through washing my hands, I recognized that I could gain some sense of control over the chaos in my life. If I followed the rules proposed by the CDC and the WHO, I could reduce the possibility of letting these spirits, these experiences, into my life, and thus, I could remain safe and in control in a time of chaos. Through the act of washing our hands, we were also clearing away our anxieties.
Beyond the ritual process of cleaning our hands, hand-washing also became attached to ideas of superiority and what it meant to be the “proper pandemic citizen.” For instance, whenever I encountered an individual in a public bathroom, I found myself starting to count the number of seconds they spent washing their hands. I would also keep track of their technique. Did they only scrub their palms? Obviously, they didn’t know the proper hand-washing technique approved by WHO and the CDC. Did they forget to scrub under their nails? Clearly, they didn’t know how much bacteria is harbored beneath them.
Each week, the group would reconvene, and almost like a gossip circle, we would talk all about the people we had seen who, in our eyes, clearly didn’t know how to wash their hands. Looking back at it now, I understand that it was intense, but at the time, we truly saw one’s ability to “properly” wash their hands a sign of the care they had for other individuals during the pandemic. In our eyes, what it meant to be a proper pandemic citizen was structured around one’s ability to adhere to proper hygiene, and more specifically, proper hand-washing.
This lack of knowledge was also representative of a lack of care for society at large.
In an article published in Time magazine this past April entitled “Why we need to fight this coronavirus effort together,” author Michelle Bachelet argues that “one person’s health depends on everyone’s health,” especially when it comes to fighting such a deadly and contagious disease. Bachelet’s argument was something that I had come to take to heart and was reflected in the ways I viewed the act of hand-washing, especially during the pandemic.
While hand-washing was an individual act, through joining a group that kept each other accountable, we transformed our view of cleanliness. Individual cleanliness and hygiene had transformed into notions of greater group cleanliness. For me, this idea also translated into my interactions with my own family and was reflected in our testing practices. Whenever one of us needed to get tested, we could count on the result of the test as a result that showed that we were all clean — because there is this idea about individual cleanliness leads to larger group cleanliness. The way my friends and I could fulfill our roles of being proper pandemic citizens was by doing our small part of wearing masks, socially distancing and stopping the spread from ourselves to our families and others in our social units through the ritual act of hand-washing and purification. Our ritualistic hand-washing was part of our larger view that individuals should make small sacrifices for the greater good of society. So while the hands could represent harbingers of disease, through washing, they could also represent control and care for one’s larger community.
Marissa Blum | firstname.lastname@example.org