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Okwuanya Pius-Vincent: To Touch Or Not To Touch, Troubling Pieces In The Sign Of Peace



The day could pass for any other day. It started as a sunny bright day which was a rarity in a week where the heavens were either pummeling the earth with stone-like hails or caressing it with a careless drizzle that was as frustrating as it was intermittent. Thus when I woke up in the morning and saw the rays of sunlight sneaking through the window and gnawing at my eyes, I knew that I had no other excuse. I had been wishing that the week’s pattern would continue on that Sunday as I was frantically searching for reasons to not go to church. I opened my window to glare at the sun but it was just there smiling indulgently like a teacher trying to pass a lesson to a particularly thick student.

However, as I started washing up in preparation for the Sunday Mass, I did not realize what the lesson was. But as soon as I entered the church, I knew why I had come. The singing was a tad subdued and lacked enthusiasm, the usually packed pews were empty and the spaces between the congregation were more pronounced as the worshippers seemed intent on avoiding any sort of contact with anybody. The highlight of the lesson came when the priest invited the congregation to share the sign of peace. The invitation by the priest became a prelude to pandemonium as random murmuring rent the air. Men and women who were already too far from each other drew further away as they tried to wave in the most awkward at the man who was sitting less than five feet away. Some found it funny; others with their gazes non-committal stared blankly into space as they waited for another cue from the priest. The priest on his part was solemn, his silence was prolonged. In his eyes I saw his apprehension and his defeatist demeanor. Our eyes met as he started to genuflect at the altar.

He was a kindred spirit who appreciates the implication of the trends which has been informed by the outbreak of the ebola pandemic. Men who have often struggled to maintain any sort of closeness to each other have been given reasons to be further apart. At the end of the holy mass which is a Catholic service, I observed as men and women who avoided contact in the church brushed each other heavily while trying to get through the gate. There were also random clusters of other worshippers who shared the lesson from the Bible readings of the day. I on my part had many lessons but most of them were not from the readings.

This is not just the case in the churches; in the marketplaces, scared traders and their customers who found it difficult to shake hands in the church grapple to invent ways of transacting businesses without the manual exchange of cash. In the buses and other means of transport, a sweaty man is a red flag. Niccolo Machiavelli had once written that men are configured to be selfish. Sigmund Freud toed similar lines while he praised the impact of the society and culture for reining in the ego. It would appear that the latest outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus is threatening to return man to his animalistic default. Men are losing the sense and the need for touch which brings them together to nosophobia. The implication may rankle through time if the enforced distance becomes the status quo.

Interesting scenes jumped at me from a busy road on a Monday morning. A man who was ran over by a hit and run driver lay in a heap at the center of the road. There were lots of people but then there was no one. The general chorus of the crowd was “ebola”. As I reached the scene, someone had paved a way through the crowd and was putting the unconscious man into a bus. I was impressed by such touch of bravery and humanness which can also be considered stupid in the nosophobic background but a short rotund woman with a glowing fair skin poured cold water on my elation. “Na him younger brother na” she had said in the local pidgin. The scene left me distraught and existential. What if it had been me? I left with the conviction that I could have bled out on the sidewalk. Like a whole lot of us, I have often found myself in a locale where I have no immediate brothers.

This newest cause of this collective nosophobia has some ramifications on faith. The faith of man in his neighbor who he had started to see as a little more than a vector and his faith in God who he has been told many a times by authorities that He cannot help him. Karl Marx had earlier stated that religion is the opium of the masses; maybe religion is the opium we need to anesthetize us from the grueling confrontation with our insensitive egocentrism, our morbidity and our mortality. When we are faced with a disease that is highly communicable and that has no tested and proven cure, it is the time to take a leap of faith. That is, the kind of faith that made the United States of America to give their afflicted citizens a drug that is yet to be tested on human subjects. Faith is not advising or taking a salt bath nor is it taking one’s own urine. It is the addressing of real problems with effort-based and reasonably possible solutions. It becomes difficult in the 21st century society where faith is subjected to the “Thomasic” lens where touching is believing because now we can no longer afford to touch.

“It is all in his touch” sang the legendary artiste, Celine Dion. In that song, she communicated surreptitiously the importance of touch and suggests that love cannot be heard or seen but felt. The loss of touch poses another palpable challenge. Touching is critical in creating bonds and building friendship. It is the fastest and the most precise way to communicate emotions and is also important in the development of attachment. What is there in a mother’s caress that soothes the infant? It is worrying that one of the preventive measures of this ebola outbreak is to avoid touching as often as possible. Matthew Hertenstein, a doctor in Psychology underlined the importance of touch when he stated that with the voice, one can only differentiate two distinct signals but a touch can communicate multiple positive emotions like joy, love, gratitude and sympathy. These are the kind of emotions that the dreaded ebola is threatening to eviscerate from the society.

Touches can increase the speed of communication, Laura Guerrero, coauthor of Close Encounters: Communication in Relationships who researches non-verbal and emotional communication at Arizona State University submits that if we are close enough to touch, it is usually a signal to something. She notes that human beings feel more connected when they are touched. It is true that we may not be able to see the impact of touch but Hertenstein feels that it is a great bonding experience which sees the oxytocin levels go up as the heart rate slows down. The climax of our humanity is in our ability to touch. To coin a phrase; to touch is human and thus, any situation that dictates that we do not touch strips off our humanity. Two hundred years ago, a creature that looked slightly human was sighted running through the woods of Aveyrnon in Southern France. Once he was captured, the scientist surmised that he was eleven years and had run away from home for much of his childhood. One of the renowned psychiatrists at the time Phillipe Pinel concluded that the child was an incurable idiot but there was an alternative suggestion from his attendant, Itard who felt that the child who he had named Victor had been deprived of human physical touch which had retarded his developmental capacities and had made him profoundly averse to human society. After therapy, Victor improved but never regained full normalcy.

This enforced loss of human physical touch may have strong social consequences. It may cause self-destructive habits like chain smoking, alcoholism and even self-mutilation. It can also lead to compulsive sex, physical violence, aggressiveness, rape and sexual dysfunction and abuses. There have been many psycho-analyses of deviants which traced the origin of their deviance to the absence of human touch during their formative years. Dr. J.H Prescott earlier suggested in a research that touch deprivation in childhood could lead to physical violence. He found out that most juvenile delinquents and criminals come from abusive parents. A greater percentage of the world’s most prolific serial killers came from homes where there were scarcities of the loving touch that makes man human. It is thus easy to feel afraid for the future of our society in a world where science, technology and most pressingly diseases has dictated an aversion for touch. These are not the times when you will present a handshake to a stranger, an acquaintance or even a friend. The question that dominates the consciousness of any man when he runs into a friend currently is “To shake or not to shake?”

The absence of touch could indeed render one susceptible to other diseases. Psychoimmunologist Steve Suomi had argued that touch deprivation can suppress the response of the immune system. He studied the relationship between physical contacts and the ability of the body to respond to an immunological challenge, like a tetanus shot. He found out that there exists a direct relationship between a one year old monkey’s ability to respond to produce antibodies in response to an immunological challenge and the amount of contact the monkey received in the first six or seven months of life. In studies where young monkeys were separated from their mothers, Suomi found suppressed immune response including subdued natural killer cells activity (Natural killer cells are the front line of the immune system and are well known for warding off viral and cancer cells). The lack of touch could be telling on the ebola patients who sees themselves in an unfamiliar situation where he must have to suffer alone to avoid the risk of spreading the highly contagious disease. It is unfamiliar in the sense that in an African society, sickness sometimes forces a family reunion with the whole immediate and sometimes extended families gathering to send their wishes and express their concern. A nurse, Monia Sayah, that worked in Guinea at the start of the ebola outbreak spoke to the guardian newspapers about the disease but one part of her interview echoed. She expressed the desperation of the patients who are mostly alone. According to her, they craved contact and would hold them tightly through their hazmat suits as they struggled to hang onto life. It would seem that touching is very important to the patients who cannot be touched. I could remember my childhood in those occasions in my tender years when I would be bitten by an ant. My first reaction was usually to cry but then my mother would rush out. I will simply present the bitten part to her. My mother was not a doctor or a nurse and had never been one but I found out that her touch in that painful part suddenly relieved or ameliorated the pains. Such was the power of touch. Pregnant women in the labour rooms crave it as they hold onto nurses they may not have hitherto seen at the most critical points in their lives, drawing strength from strangers as the perform the miracle that makes women so great.

But will we get the touches again? I doubt. I received a broadcast via the social network. The broadcast was tagged Top Ten Most Unsuspected Ebola Sources to Be wary about (By a Concerned Citizen) and basically listed all forms of routine kindnesses as possible ebony sources. It advised against the sharing of pen in banking halls, sharing powders and cosmetics and even helping someone who had fallen down or who wants to climb a height. I am neither criticizing the message nor the sender because the message may have emanated from deep concern and genuine fear, I am merely pointing out that the very basis of our humanity is under threat of extinction by a very terrible disease. Why are we scared of a potential Biblical apocalyptic Armageddon when the battle for our humanity has already started? I recently encountered a mother who was beating her five year old son in a market for handshaking his mother’s friend.

The friend stood at the side stupefied as the over-dramatic but possibly cautious mother bought a sachet water and a soap to watch the boys hands amidst his tears. The woman soon went to buy meat from a butcher and was touching the meat with her bare hands while the son watched. A lesson was served but a lesson was lost too.

The task facing us in this viral outbreak is maintaining the vestiges of our humanity towards ensuring that it is not killed by the disease too. Because this disease may later be defeated but the cost of its widespread expedient psychosocial adaptations and some inbred reflexes may not depart from the society. If we survive the war, let us also dispose ourselves towards surviving the sort of peace we are engineering as a consequence of the ebola virus; A “separate peace”.

I am not advocating that preventive measures should not be taken against this disease; I am merely stating that panic may not help us individually or as a society. Permit me to sign off with some facts extracted from Casual contacts do not spread the disease but we do need to avoid contact with fruit bats and monkeys, someone who is VISIBLY sickwith the disease and the dead body of anyone who died of the disease.

Hamlet had felt in the Shakespearean Drama “Hamlet” that “To be or not to be” was the most pressing question. However, currently the most important question of man especially in West Africa is “To touch or not to touch.”


Article written by Okwuanya Pius-Vincent and can be reached via  [email protected]  @Tovincentokwy.


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