Friendly kisses pose a European dilemma as the virus spreads

MILAN: When the French president leaned forward to give the prime minister the double-cheek Italian kiss not once, but on two separate occasions, during a Franco-Italian summit in Naples this week, it was much more than a greeting.

It was a signal for citizens not to fear their neighbors when a new virus spreads from China, with Italy established as the access point of Europe.

Friendly kisses over time have become a new dilemma, especially in the effusive south of Europe, with perhaps the power to reshape customs. But even the most reserved northerners are dealing with giving up the sacred handshake.

The special government commissioner for the coronavirus, Angelo Borrelli, suggested that 'the demonstrative nature could be contributing to the spread of the virus', with more than 1,100 people who tested positive and 29 deaths, almost all in the north of the country.

But there have been no official edicts about the social custom of kisses, which according to sociologists have their roots in the Mediterranean culture of Italy, as well as in their strong family and social structure.

`` We have a collective social life that is very florid, very expansive. We have a lot of contact, we shake hands, we kiss, we hug, '' Borelli told reporters. `` Maybe it is better in this period not to shake hands, and not have too much contact, and try to be a little less expansive, which is different from how I am. ''

In neighboring France, the Minister of Health, Olivier Veran, advised on Saturday to people who reduce the `` bise '', the custom in France and other parts of Europe to give greetings with kisses, or aerial kisses, in the cheeks, together with the hand. France, which has had 100 and two deaths so far, made a similar recommendation during the swine flu epidemic a decade ago.

In Germany, where children are taught to shake hands with adults and firmness of grip can be seen as a correlation with the strength of personality, health experts and doctors are trying to persuade people to Leave the traditional label.

At the Virchow hospital in Berlin, doctors not only stopped shaking the hands of their patients, even those not contagious, but actively encouraged them to follow suit as cases in Germany reached 66.

Health experts have been warning that shaking hands is an excellent way to spread the disease.

In northern Italy, the virus is charging a high social cost, reducing the usual opportunities to meet.

With schools, museums and most public offices officially closed until Monday, many people stay home and avoid all social contact. The financial capital of Italy, Milan, is as empty as at the peak of summer vacations, with many companies offering professionals the option of working from home, and some restaurants and neighborhood stores close due to lack of business . Those who remain open are unusually empty.

During Milan Fashion Week, kisses on the cheeks were abandoned as the week went by and the cases turned in spiral in favor of other recognitions, such as a small double kiss on the tip of the fingers that a fashionista dubbed , `` the new coronavirus kiss ''.

Eleonora Strozzi, marketing manager in a business, WOVO store, specializing in sexy lingerie and erotic accessories that aims to challenge social taboos, said the virus is teaching the limits of Italians.

`` The Italians want to be great with each other, exchange kisses and shake hands. Now they are learning if you are not well, or if you have doubts, they can create a certain distance, '' Strozzi said. `` Italians will learn something about the consent of this experience. ''

Marco Pozzi, a film director, met with a business contact in a cafeteria in downtown Milan on Friday, without worrying about the risks of social contact, and was following the same precautions every flu season follows, including frequent washing of hands. He was critical instead of what he saw as `` alarmism '' around the virus.

Another meeting that recently involved Pozzi in a city office had to move to a bar at 5:30 p.m. when emergency measures closed the office, but the bar in turn closed half an hour later due to the same restrictions.

`` We ended up finishing the meeting on the sidewalk, talking for an hour in the cold. It was crazy, '' said Pozzi, adding that `` the real Milan is not afraid. ''

Giampaolo Nuvolati, an urban sociologist at the University of Milan-Bicocca, said the habit of kissing Italians is an expression of confidence that is unlikely to be affected by the virus. But he said something more fundamental could change.

`` Once this has happened, we will understand that we cannot face the problems alone, that we need others beyond the family and a close group of friends, '' Nuvolati said. `` There is the community, there are institutions. Maybe it will create a broader solidarity, not just restricted to friends and family. ''