August 4, 2020

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Trust us, you're dirty; wash your hands

Opinion

We humans just love to touch our faces, don’t we?

That’s been among the most frightening things about living through a viral outbreak, apart from all the death: that we’re all a bunch of filthy face-touchers, coupled with the fact that apparently most of us don’t know how to wash our hands.

The novel coronavirus (a.k.a. COVID-19) has been dominating the news cycle over the past few months and part of that coverage has included a truly alarming number of hand-washing explainers and how-tos, as though the act of lathering with soap and water and washing your hands for 20 seconds is the hot new dance move the kids are doing these days.

But, if you spend any time at all in public, you know these PSAs are absolutely necessary. Humans are gross. We don’t always mean to be. We just are. Most of us have our fingers in our eyes, or our noses, or our mouths, at all times. Children, especially, are adorable little agents of infectious disease.

I bet you’re touching your face right now. Stop touching your face.

I’m not a germaphobe, but I am a bit of a WebMD-surfing hypochondriac. I’m less worried about contracting COVID-19 than I am about dying from Secret Cancer. Secret Cancer, for insight in how my brain works, is the cancer that lives and multiplies, undetected, until one day you go to the doctor for a routine and completely unrelated checkup and they gravely say, "Sorry, ma’am, there’s nothing to be done. You ate all that kale for naught." Secret Cancer. Really, I just have a bad case of carcinophobia.

Are you touching your face? Stop touching your face. (Tribune Media Services)

Are you touching your face? Stop touching your face. (Tribune Media Services)

Are you touching your face? Stop touching your face.

Still, nothing makes you up your hand-washing game quite like learning the phrase "fecal-oral route," which is a common pathway of transmission of such unpleasant ailments as gastroenteritis. Hand-washing is one of the most effective ways to prevent illness, especially during cold and flu season. We should be washing our hands after we use the washroom (at home, too!), of course, but it’s also good to get into the habit of washing them as soon as you get home from being out in the disgusting world.

Touch a pole on the bus? Contaminated. Touch equipment at the gym? Contaminated. Banisters, elevator buttons, debit machines. Woof. We might as well lick our phones.

Seriously, stop touching your face.

(World Health Organization handout)

(World Health Organization handout)

Your nose, eyes, and mouth are all entry points for disease. That’s why health officials are practically begging you to stop touching your face and to wash your hands. Things that are not the same as washing your hands:

● Using hand sanitizer. (The fact that stores are out of hand sanitizer and not, you know, hand soap is telling.)
● Turning on a tap, waggling your fingers in the stream for five seconds, and then drying your hands on your pants.
● Saying you "didn’t touch anything."
● Miming (!) the entire act.

We know what we’re supposed to do, but, like so many things when it comes to our health, we don’t. And, look, washing your hands as much as you’re supposed to is a drag.

All I do now is wash my hands. But it’s my duty as a person who lives in a society. Washing your hands isn’t just about you.

An outbreak (or a pandemic) is both a terrifying lesson in trust and a sobering reminder of just how little in the world is in your control. One cannot control the behaviour — including hand hygiene — of others. I have to trust that the person making my meal at a restaurant has washed their hands. I have to trust that the person sitting beside me at the theatre will sneeze into their elbow and not directly into my lap.

One can only control one’s own behaviours and habits, and hope others do the same. And taking care of ourselves is how we take care of each other. Setting aside COVID-19 for a moment, there are all manner of illnesses that put already-sick and immuno-compromised people at risk all the time, every day.

So, wash your hands, with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds. To get the timing right, many health officials have recommended humming Happy Birthday, twicewhile washing your hands, which is sort of nice.

And for the love of all that is good, stop touching your face.

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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