Over the past few months, some have wondered if obsessively disinfecting surfaces to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus essentially amounts to “hygiene theater,” as The Atlantic put it: While the measures certainly make us feel safer, mounting research shows they do little to nothing to actually diminish the likelihood that we’ll contract COVID-19, which is primarily spread through the air. In a recent New York Times report focusing on large-scale sanitation efforts, the National Institutes of Health’s Dr. Kevin Fennelly said, “In my opinion, a lot of time, energy, and money is being wasted on surface disinfection and, more importantly, diverting attention and resources away from preventing airborne transmission.”
Flashback to the start of the pandemic, when we were fastidiously rubbing every surface in our house with Clorox wipes. Perhaps a bit of misplaced effort but arguably not for nothing! If there’s a silver lining to be found in all of this, it’s that the pandemic has compelled many of us to abandon our unsanitary ways, turning us into the kind of people who regularly clean our counters and avoid touching our faces.
Before the coronavirus forced us to reckon with our disgusting selves, features writer Allison P. Davis says she didn’t think of herself as a “filthball.” Rather, she thought she was reasonably clean. And then she started to come across the myriad unsettling reports about how our cell phones — which may as well be superglued to our grubby little mitts — are covered in germs and “poo particles.” After one too many articles, she said, “I started wiping my phone down with alcohol wipes around the start of COVID, and now I cringe thinking how many germs I was previously just letting vibe with me in bed.”
Rachel Bashein, the Cut’s managing editor, has pledged to never again wear her outdoor shoes inside her home: “Frankly, I’m appalled thinking of all the germs I was tracking in that way up until this year.” Meanwhile, I have become someone who routinely mops their floors, which is partly due to the fact that my work-from-home schedule has allotted me ample time to scrutinize every particle of dust and dirt on them.
Perhaps the most useful habit the pandemic has taught us, which apparently none of us (especially men) were doing before all of this, is to wash our hands. These days, writer Bridget Read and her boyfriend regularly have “handwashing competitions” to see who can vigorously scrub the longest; she has yet to come out triumphant. “He always wins, because I am impatient and he is genuinely cleanlier, but I know it has improved my hygiene,” she said. And as Instagram editor Taylor Roberts joked, “It should not have taken a pandemic to remind me to wash my hands before touching everything I know and love.”
But at the end of the day, we are still flawed creatures predisposed to laziness and recklessness. As it turns out, being clean takes a lot of work, and changing your habits is hard. While senior writer Katie Heaney was among the first of us at the Cut to adopt hygienic habits at the start of the pandemic, she has since become fatigued: “I don’t wash my hands for 30 seconds anymore, I don’t wipe my phone, I touch my face all the time. I am at least staying home, but I’d have hoped I had more tenacity than this.”
Perhaps we have yet to attain the level of cleanliness that would make a public-health expert proud, but at the very least, we now think about our disgusting ways.