Why Human Beings Need a Hug


The Hug Patrol. Photo contributed by Arcadia Love

Forgive me, dear readers, for I have sinned (giving a hug in the privacy of my own home). A friend I had not seen for six months came to visit and the impulse to hug was too strong. We did the right thing to a degree, our heads facing away from each other, so the droplets would disperse in the same room, (where other people freely mingle).

You may have seen examples of people not observing the 1.5m COVID-19 physical distancing rule. Sneaks have taken phone footage in Brisbane nightclubs which show people mingling in close quarters and not sitting down to dance, as the Queensland Premier suggested.

The universal advice to maintain a physical distance of 1.5m from another person outside your immediate family makes sense. But it is hard to do and harder still to keep it up over an extended period.

The main reason is that human beings are just not designed to avoid physical contact with others.

New York Times writer Jane Brody writes that “social interaction is a critically important contributor to good health and longevity.

Referring to a long-term study by Lisa F. Berkman and S. Leonard Syme, Brody said findings drawn from 7,000 participants concluded that “people who were disconnected from others were roughly three times more likely to die during the nine-year study than people with strong social ties.

Physical contact can mean hugging, as championed by American folk songwriter Fred Small in his catchy ditty, The Hug Song. This version is by Brisbane musicians Donald McKay and Rebecca Wright, who compiled this video exclusively for FOMM. Warning: it’s an ear worm.

Late last year, we moved from a small village where, for a certain proportion of the community, hugging is the first thing you do on encountering friends, whether or not you saw them yesterday or six months ago. These are not perfunctory hugs either, but warm, tight embraces that last, well, sometimes they last longer than one party would prefer. I have it on good authority that the public hugging habit has abated in the village these past few months.

If you were a regular festival-goer in the first part of the new millennium. you might recall the Hug Patrol, initiated at Woodford in 2001 by actor/comedian Arcadia Love. Street performers roamed in small packs through the dusty byways of Woodford Festival, approaching just about anybody with open arms (asking permission first). The Hug Patrol is still turning up at festivals, carnivals, fetes, shows – anywhere where there is a crowd. Arcadia is understandably frustrated with the hug-less nature of 2020, saying that ‘virtual’ hugs are just not the same. The Patrol’s last live gig was at the Northey Street summer solstice in December 2019. The Hug Patrol’s deeds have touched people deeply, as writer Sandy McCutcheon said in a testimonial:

This extraordinary group of individuals has probably no idea of just what a positive impact they have.  I was fortunate to witness (at Woodford) the effect they had on a large group of refugee women from Afghanistan. For women whose lives are in tatters, families are scattered or dead, the rare moment of physicality was of tremendous importance.” 

Meanwhile The Conversation this week asked the most obvious question: “why are we all not wearing masks?”

There’s no doubt masks help stop the spread. A World Health Organisation study showed that face masks reduce the risk of infection with viruses such as COVID-19, by 67%, if a disposable surgical mask is used, and up to 95% if specialist N95 masks are worn.

The mask subject comes up often in community choir circles, where rehearsals are mostly still on hold and actual performances are being deferred to 2021. The theory about singers (and you’d have to ask why is it not the same for footballers who sprint 100m to score a try to be then piled upon by team members), aerosols can be spread up to 8m by singers (who don’t so far as I know, spit on the ground, or on the dressing room floor, or do that disgusting nose clearing thing ).

Plainly, a lot of people in Melbourne have not been maintaining physical distancing; nor, it would seem, have they been adhering to medical advice about social gatherings. The critical issue is, if you are feeling at all under the weather but have not been diagnosed, stay at home.

After the first month of the COVID-19 lock-down, the most common response you would get is, “I’m over it”.

Some of us spent 14 days in isolation, but in fairly comfortable circumstances, apart from not being able to leave home (except to walk the dog or buy groceries). I feel for residents in the public housing towers in North Melbourne, who up until today were not even allowed to do that. (One of the nine towers is still in very restrictive lock-down, the others have moved to ‘stage three’, like the rest of Melbourne.)

A Science Alert article on this subject (isolation and its ill-effects), said researchers based in Antarctica found that loneliness could be the most difficult part of the job.

Israeli adventurer and author Yossi Ghinsberg, who survived weeks alone in the Amazon, suffered loneliness, even creating imaginary friends to keep himself company. Which somehow reminded me of that Tom Hanks movie, where he is stranded on a desert island, alone except for a football called Wilson.

The degree to which isolation bothers you depends on your personality type (extroverts hate it). and your peer group. A report from Byron Bay about a ‘doof’ party that attracted thousands of young dance party goers, is an extreme example of how certain age groups find isolation and government-imposed health advice too inhibiting.

On the other hand, if you are a 70+ introvert with absorbing hobbies that can be performed alone in one room (Ed: who could he be talking about), the COVID-19 lock-down might not bother you at all.

So how much physical and social interaction does one have, in a typical day? If you are a checkout operator or a drive-through bottle shop attendant, quite a lot. Unemployed gamer, maybe not.

An academic study involving 7,290 participants was carried out in 2008 by researchers interested in reducing the spread of flu-like diseases. The first large-scale study of its kind, it found that respondents had on average 13.4 physical and non-physical contacts each day. The researchers recruited 7,290 people from eight European countries. They asked participants to keep a diary documenting their physical and non-physical contacts for a single day. Physical contacts included interactions such as a kiss or a handshake. Non-physical contacts, for example, might included a two-way conversation without skin-to-skin contact. The researchers concluded that the study provided a “deeper understanding of the transmission patterns of a hypothetical respiratory epidemic among a susceptible population.

If you take this study as a ‘norm’, how do these average interactions compare with 1,000 young people at a dance party or, as happened in Auckland on June 14, 43,000 people attending a rugby game?

We are not out of the woods yet, people, hugs or no hugs.

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