Almost every news organization in the country, from major television networks to small-town newspapers, has published its very own instructional guide explaining “How to Wash Your Hands” within the past week. In the age of coronavirus, they—we!—have done this for the noblest of purposes: public health and sweet, sweet clicks.
The need is clear. We know that many people do not wash their hands often enough or thoroughly enough to prevent the spread of germs, at least in normal, nonpandemic times. A 2018 observational study on food safety initiated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, found that no more than 2 percent of participants “included all steps necessary to be considered an adequate hand-washing event”—and that was when they washed their hands at all. It’s also clear that now, given the coronavirus, news consumers are eager for instruction on the topic. The phrase “wash your hands” was significantly more popular as a search term in the United States last week than any other week since Google started keeping track in 2004. In other words, hand-washing how-tos are the content that Americans in March 2020 both require and crave.
Unfortunately, however, washing your hands is boring, and so are almost all of these guides. There are only so many ingredients one can include in the recipe after all: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s five steps, the tip to sing “Happy Birthday” twice while you scrub, the reminder to dry thoroughly afterward. “Wet your hands with clean running water and then lather them with soap,” commanded the New York Times. “Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap,” instructed ABC News. “Rinse your hands thoroughly under clean, running water,” advised NBC News. After a while, these starts to feel like step-by-step instructions for eating. “Open your mouth and place the food inside. Close your lips and move your jaw up and down.”
Some news outlets have attempted to inject some drama into the proceedings. Local TV news stations are pros at this: “Chances are, you probably aren’t washing your hands the right way,” warned a CBS affiliate in Las Vegas. Meanwhile on NPR’s All Things Considered, host Mary Louise Kelly, an esteemed national security reporter, was reduced to exclaiming that proper hand-washing is “super complicated.” She then slowly washed her hands on air under the expert guidance of a science podcast host. Somehow, she managed to do it correctly.
The video and GIF guides in particular can take on an almost hypnotic quality over time, like a public health version of ASMR. “You’ve lifted the germs from your hands,” reported CNN in the present tense, soothingly. The World Health Organization has a hand hygiene video from 2015, and frankly, I understand why it hasn’t bothered to release an updated version. It’s already a master class of the genre. “Wet hands with water,” the instructor drones. “Rub right palm over the back of left palm with interlaced fingers, and vice versa.” Close your eyes and just picture all those hands, scrubbing back and forth, forever.
Against the repetitive blur of hands, soap, and faucets, minute variations can start to look like “creativity.” The Oregonian set its video to an instrumental piano rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Neat! At a Seattle news station, a local doctor pantomimed the action of washing his hands at the news desk, no water at all. CBS News filmed its chief medical correspondent, Jonathan LaPook, scrubbing his hands in a bathroom crooning the birthday song to “Irving” and explaining, “You can put in whatever name you want.” (“This clip is so odd .. and oddly satisfying,” a YouTube commenter wrote. “Gonna have to watch it again sober and compare notes.”)
Perhaps part of the point of hand-washing content is to calm those among us who are so worried about coronavirus that they are willing to watch a video teaching them how to properly wash their hands. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Hand-washing instructions do not, it turns out, need to be as boring as hand-washing itself. To change course, we must look abroad, to the robust and surprising international genre of hand-washing–themed amateur dance videos.
Hand-washing dance videos seem to be a phenomenon largely because of Global Handwashing Day, an annual event founded in 2008 to “design, test, and replicate creative ways to encourage people to wash their hands with soap at critical times.” Over the years, those “creative ways” have included local dance competitions, and videos end up on YouTube. There are charming submissions from hospitals, schools, and other institutions.
The videos all feature groups of people pantomiming the motions of thorough hand-washing as part of a dance routine, usually filmed like a set piece in an amateur pop music video. But beyond that, the variety is endless. At a school in Indonesia, hand washers wave their hands to “Uptown Funk.” At a hospital in Abu Dhabi, workers wash to “Despacito.” In England, there’s “Handwashing Gangnam Style.” And in France, dozens of hospital workers in white scrubs gather in a “FlashMob sur l’hygiène des mains” set to Chris Brown’s “Don’t Wake Me Up.” Professional productions include this disturbingly intense Swiss routine, and UNICEF’s mesmerizing “Global Handwashing Dance,” which features Japanese dancer Kaiji Moriyama soaping up in a cheerful blue costume and a huge dollop of white “foam” on his head.
Perusing this smorgasbord of silliness makes returning to the deeply bland offerings of American news organizations all the more disappointing. Yes, it’s important to communicate the facts: Hand-washing is essential, and it should be done thoroughly. But if hand-washing itself isn’t supposed to be dry, why do the instructions need to be?