This is an excerpt from the weekly newsletter Sunshine & Microbes by Jackie Vitale, chef in residence at the Rauschenberg Residency in Captiva, Florida. You should totally subscribe to her newsletter here.
It took me 24 years to learn how to wash my hands properly. It was my trial shift at the Kappacasein stall at Borough Market, and my co-worker led me to the sink shed and blew my mind...hygienically speaking.
Wash my wrists? Scrub between my fingers? Lather for 20 seconds?! Who knew! I had no idea how to wash my hands properly, and outside of healthcare professionals and diligent food handlers, I don’t think I was alone in that knowledge gap. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, it seems like the rest of the world is finally becoming attuned to this basic tenant of good health and hygiene. It’s the World Health Organization’s number one tip for stopping the spread of the virus. It’s also become fabulous international meme fodder!
I live in Florida’s Lee County, which recently had its first coronavirus patient death. As a healthy, youngish person, I’m not as worried for myself as I am for my parents, both septuagenarians recently returned from an international trip, and one of whom has serious respiratory issues. So I called them up and reminded them to wash their hands. They both laughed at me. “I don’t think washing my hands is going to make any difference at all!” Of course, I’m sure their cavalier attitude is influenced by the performative nonchalance of the on-air talent at Fox News.
That horror aside, I think people tend to underestimate the power of handwashing because society has developed a tendency to mistake hygiene for sterility. This confusion can be seen in the misguided comfort felt by seeing a food handler wearing gloves. At Ground Floor Farm, we would post gorgeous photos of hands packing kimchi or mixing bread dough or sprinkling a finishing touch of sea salt on a salad to Facebook. Always there would be some horrified comments. “Did you run out of gloves?” “Someone should report this to the health inspector!” During the early days, I would gently try to change hearts and minds: “Actually! Gloves [just like face masks] tend to give the wearer a sense of false security and aren’t that effective at reducing bacterial contamination, unlike proper handwashing, which the CDC callsone of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs.”
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