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August 11, 2020 Tuesday 05:29:05 PM IST

New Taboos in times of Covid

Photo by Gerd Altman for

Old taboos may be challenged and new ones emerging as Covid pandemic continues to impact people across the world, according to Dr Sabine Krajewski, taboos researcher at Macquarie University, Australia.

Dr Sabine says all cultures have taboos, the things no one likes to do or talk about. And they are context related. However, they play a protective function in society. Imagine if there were no taboos and you could ask anything you want in any situation; it would be pretty terrible, says Dr Sabine. It may be difficult to decide which to retain and which to discard.

The Covid has created new taboos including fear of handshake, coughing and sneezing. However, the death of the handshake is highly exaggerated while the involuntary acts of sneezing and coughing we never paid much attention to, have also become entrenched as a taboo.

Spitting is a social taboo in many countries, but during this time it becomes a real taboo, and my workshop students tell me they feel they get looks that are a mixture of fear and disgust even if they sneeze or cough.”

Asking people what they do for work is a common conversation opener, but Krajewski’s workshop students believe this may become taboo as people lose their jobs, or are forced into completely different fields of work because their industry has so few opportunities.

Nobody previously would think twice about asking that question, but now people start thinking about whether it might hurt the other person’s feelings; might open a wound,” Krajewski says.

On the flip side, receiving government assistance may become less of a taboo given the number of people who have lost their jobs and been forced to turn to Centrelink.

“Being on Centrelink used to have the connotation that you either don’t want to work, or you don’t get a job because you’re not good enough, but right now that just is not the case because so many people have been laid off and likely still will be in the future.”

Mental illness is another global taboo, but Krajewski says widely felt anxiety due to the pandemic may bring a new level of empathy and understanding around mental health issues

“Everyone experiences some level of anxiety in these times because we have an uncertain future, maybe anxiety about your own health, your loved ones’ health, about having a job, everything. Domestic violence is a global taboo which has been brought further into the open by COVID-19 as isolation in the home, job loss, home-schooling and increased use of alcohol all contribute to an increase in its incidence. It is a very sensitive subject where the taboo protects the perpetrator, not the victim, Krajewski says.
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