Philippine lawmakers are backing a new national greeting that does not involve shaking hands in a move meant to discourage physical contact during the pandemic, but critics dismissed it as a stunt that will fail to flatten the curve.
The new gesture—placing a hand on your chest and gracefully nodding—received near-unanimous approval in the House of Representatives when it passed its third and final reading on Tuesday.
Representative Bayani Fernando, who once served as Manila’s development czar, is the main proponent of the bill, which he first introduced as a resolution in 2019. He said the medical field has long established that shaking hands helps transmit the virus, which has infected more than 500,000 and killed 10,000 people in the Philippines. The new coronavirus variant threatens another lockdown as restrictions grind on.
“Handshaking has become a tradition, but I think it has killed a lot of people,” Fernando said in a radio interview. He did not return calls from VICE World News.
The gesture is not mandatory and there is no enforcement of it in the proposed law, raising questions over whether it will be adopted by Filipinos. But handshakes have faded in use during the pandemic globally, as fist and elbow bumps take the place of one of the most common greetings in the world.
The decline has also shone a spotlight on longstanding traditional greetings that don’t require shaking hands, such as the Thai “wai,” which an official from the World Health Organization suggested others adopt. The relatively low number of cases in Thailand and Cambodia, where a similar greeting is also used, have bolstered anecdotal evidence for dropping the handshake.
The gesture proposed by Fernando is already used in one form or another by Muslims in the southern Philippines and other parts of Asia and the Middle East as a polite greeting.
But the new bill, which still needs to pass in the Senate and be signed by the president, was criticized by many on social media who said it should not be a priority when there are more important ways of addressing the health and economic fallout from the virus, such as job programs and mass vaccination.
Ash Presto, who teaches sociology at the University of the Philippines, said it will be hard to modify a cultural setup since the majority of Filipinos are used to shaking hands, although the pandemic has put a temporary stop to the practice in everyday life.
“They should not waste the people’s money on this, but instead prioritize mass testing for COVID-19 and mass vaccination,” Presto said.
Presto suggested that the new greeting could be a politician’s way of creating a personal style or trademark should they seek to run for higher office.
Well before the pandemic hit, President Rodrigo Duterte’s fist bump salute has been a symbol of his presidency and is very popular among his supporters, used in both formal and informal gatherings. It has appeared on stickers, posters and even in the logo of some government programs.
Fernando, the proponent of the bill, made headlines more than a decade ago for painting many structures in Manila pink during his stint as development czar in an apparent nod to his favorite color. He also painted his name on many of his development projects in the capital region.