Touch is the first sense that we develop in the womb, and throughout life it continues to elicit strong emotional responses, and remains a powerful way to connect to other humans. Ebola is a disease that preys on touch—it is not airborne, and can only be transmitted through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. This means that the only way to stay safe in the regions affected by the current outbreak (the worst in history) is to touch no one.
In Liberia, one of the countries most affected by the outbreak, this means people are estranging themselves from a key part of their culture. As the New York Times reported this weekend, in Liberia, “closeness is expressed through physical contact.” The traditional greeting is a double-cheek kiss—not possible anymore when even a few drops of saliva could expose you to the virus. Washington Post reporter Lenny Bernstein noted during his visit to the country the prevalence of a new, warier greeting: the “Liberian handshake,” bumping fully-clothed elbows.
Still, some people can’t resist comforting their loved ones. The Times story tells of a man who tried his best not to touch his mother, who was vomiting blood in her bed:
But as she grew worse, unable to keep anything down, he gave her milk, and tried to soothe her. His skin touched hers.
His mother died the next day.
Just after his mother’s funeral, Mr. Dunbar’s own forehead got hot with fever. For 15 days, he stayed at John F. Kennedy Hospital in Monrovia, fighting the disease. It was a fight he eventually won. But when he got out of the hospital, he found out that four of his sisters, his brother, his father, his aunt, his uncle and his two nephews had died. His entire family, wiped out in days.
On Friday, Mr. Dunbar said he would do nothing different. “That’s my ma,” he said, “that she the one born me.”
People who are isolated and experience little physical contact are known as “touch hungry.” These people are often members of marginalized or stigmatized populations—the homeless, for example. Ebola patients are certainly isolated, immediate quarantine being the best strategy to stop the spread of the disease, and in addition to being torn away from friends and family, they are hosts to a virus whose very name makes people fearful.