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Finns told it's (mostly) okay to hug now, if they want

As Finland slowly returns to normal, some wonder what type of person-to-person contact is acceptable.

Social distancing during Covid meant no hugs. Image: Tero Kyllönen / Yle

As meeting and greeting resumes in Finland, some are wondering whether handshakes and hugs are appropriate.

It's a good idea to have a person's permission before touching them, according to Asko Järvinen, Chief Physician and head of the infectious diseases department at the Helsinki and Uusimaa hospital district (HUS).

"We can carefully and slowly start following normal customs for greeting. Younger people who know they've had Covid can start thinking about a return to normal," Järvinen told Yle.

But while society is opening up, Covid is still spreading in Finland, which is why Järvinen advises people to exercise caution when meeting people belonging to coronavirus risk groups or those who haven't had Covid.

Elbow bumps vs handshakes

The HUS top doc said that in this day and age, hugs and handshakes have to be based on mutual agreement.

"Both parties have to be ready for it…if the other person is showing some apprehension, don't try to touch them," Järvinen explained.

When confronted with a hand expecting a shake, Järvinen said you can simply say you're not yet ready to press palms and maybe offer up an elbow instead.

"At this point everyone understands this kind of reaction."

While Järvinen said handshakes transfer microbes and bacteria, he doesn't want to tell people to stop the tradition.

"Handshaking is so tightly woven into our society and part of our social interactions," he said, adding that people generally do a good job of washing their hands these days.

Normal summer?

Järvinen said that while Covid was unlikely to fade away by summer, the risk of infection would be so low that the majority of people would start living more or less normally.

"We have vaccines that work well in protecting against serious forms of the disease...but we have to accept that some people's risk tolerance means it will take longer for them to adapt to normal life."

Scientists have speculated that a new Covid wave will hit Finland in the autumn. Järvinen said it is impossible to predict what it will look like, but noted that it is certain that the virus is here to stay.

"Whether it's Omicron or some new variants is hard to say," he said. "No variant has yet to circumvent the protection offered by vaccines or prior infection against serious disease."

Järvinen said Finland was heading towards a new normal in which Covid will be an infection on par with the seasonal flu or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)—illnesses difficult for the elderly and immunocompromised people.