Culture and Physical Distancing?

NYT has just published an article on the “puzzle why do some nations fare worse than others” when it comes to the ravages that Coronavirus is inflicting across the globe. (p54rx5.html)
In exploring various theories. it identified cultural distancing as one of the factors to explain the riddle in India. “In Thailand and India, where virus numbers are relatively low, people greet each other at a distance, with palms joined together as in prayer. In Japan and South Korea, people bow……In many parts of the Middle East, such as Iraq and the Persian Gulf countries, men often embrace or shake hands-on meeting, yet most are not getting sick.”
The role that cultural distancing might be playing is correct but betrays an abysmal ignorance of cultural intelligence regarding India. Yes, ‘namaste’ is certainly a more effective measure against COVID19 than a handshake – see my snippet of 4 April – but it is ludicrous to suggest that it even partly explains the Indian ‘riddle’. In fact, Indian cultural behaviour is, if not more, touchy-feely than in the Middle East. In India, unlike in the Arab world, women touch, hug and hold hands in public. Men are as expressive in physical contact as their Arab counterparts. It is accepted cultural practice for young men to walk hand in hand or arms draped over each other’s shoulders. Indeed, quite apart from the sheer spatial propinquity inevitable in slums and teeming urban spaces, it is this cultural aspect that makes social distancing a distant dream irrespective of regulations in place. Namaste has very little to do with the “puzzle”.
(A historic footnote: From the onset of the Raj, the British (and other occidentals) mistook this Indian male behaviour as a sign of gayness – and weakness. As late as in the 1990s, western diplomatic reporting from New Delhi on defence policies suggested that Indian (Hindu) martial skills were inferior to those of Pakistani (Muslim) warriors because they were effete – better in bed (hello, Kama Sutra) than on the battlefield. Sub-text: Do not write off muscular Pakistan vis a vis soft India when considering strategic options in South Asia.)

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