MADRID — “Don’t kiss. Don’t shake hands. Say hello,” reads a banner hanging from the facade of the Madrid medical association.
The advice seems obvious enough to help prevent infection by the H1N1 flu virus (a.k.a. swine flu). But for tactile Spaniards, following these recommendations borders on a cultural revolution.
The association’s instructions are blatantly ignored by health authorities. In fact, they puckered up and gave each other pecks at meetings held to discuss that very issue. Trinidad Jimenez, Spain’s minister of health, distributed kisses left and right in August at a regional meeting with health department representatives to agree on H1N1 flu prevention measures. Jimenez and Esperanza Aguirre, Madrid’s regional leader, also kissed each other the following day at a meeting to discuss the same topic — and they belong to rival political parties.
Spaniards touch and kiss each other constantly. Babies are smooched by strangers. A kiss on each cheek is the ordinary greeting between two women and between men and women. (Spanish men don’t usually kiss each other, unless they are members of the same family.) It is also a normal way of salutation on a first-time introduction. “This is the first time I’ve been kissed by an interviewee,” revealed an amused foreign correspondent on assignment here. It is not rare for an unfamiliar person to sit next to you in the park, no matter the empty benches all around. People bump into each other in the streets, no apologies; they brush by people’s arms and backs in the metro and bars. Caregivers — mostly immigrants — walk arm-in-arm with old folks. Personal space is much smaller than in northern European and Anglo countries.
Kissing and touching are so instinctual one wonders whether these habits are at the root of Spaniards’ genetic code. For the doctors’ advice to be adopted, “the situation would have to be tremendously serious, almost a catastrophic epidemic like the Black Death,” argued Javier Callejo, a sociologist professor at UNED, the Distance Learning University, and a member of the Colegio Oficial de Sociologos y Politologos de Madrid, Madrid’s official sociologists’ and political scientists’ association.
Callejo explained that personal space is larger in Anglo-Saxon countries because there is a greater sense of individualism. “The Protestant religion probably has something to do with it. And also the fact that the industrialization and modernization process happened earlier. With modernization come individualism and separation of community and social relations. In Latin countries, modernization happened later.”
Individualism is absent from tables where Spaniards eat out of the one big salad plate placed at the center, share the same tapa dishes and drink out of a large glass of beer or other alcohol that is passed around from one mouth to the next, known as a mini. “I don’t think young people will stop drinking minis, it’s part of the group sense,” said Callejo.
The Organizacion Medica Colegial, the national medical association, warned Spanish media against creating excessive alarm and reminded, in a press release, that “the H1N1 flu is more contagious than the seasonal flu but more benign.”
As of Wednesday, 23 people had died in Spain from H1N1 flu. The rate of infection was, at the time of writing this dispatch, 53.61 cases per 100,000 people, but that may change: More than 22,900 new cases were estimated in the last week of August. Health authorities do not have accurate figures for H1N1 incidence, as many people with mild symptoms do not go to the doctor. A group of “sentry doctors” estimates the number infected in Spain by extrapolating the cases they diagnose in their medical offices. Spain will stock vaccinations for 60 percent of the population. Pregnant women, patients with a chronic illness, health personnel and essential services like the state security forces and firefighters will be given priority. The vaccine is expected to be available in health centers at the end of October or beginning of November and in pharmacies at the end of December. Priorities may change and expand as the virus evolves.
Schools are starting on schedule in September. Neighboring France has reportedly decided to close schools with more than three infection cases. Angel Gabilondo, Spain’s minister of education, ruled out that possibility: “Closing all places with three infected people would mean closing down the entire country,” he said in a La Ser radio interview.
The human resources service company Adecco predicted the H1N1 flu, affecting 12 percent of workers, will cost Spanish companies 1 billion euros. Yet Sept. 1 was probably the most kiss-heavy day of the year: Employees all over the country welcomed each other on their first day back from a month-long summer holiday.
Jimenez, the Health Minister, recommended carrying out life as normal. And in Spain, that means kisses.