Coronavirus: Why going without physical touch is so hard

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Although most of us can still see and speak to our loved ones, if we don’t live with them we can no longer touch them.

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Milestone birthdays are being celebrated over video calls, elderly people are talking to neighbours through windows and those who live alone are going without any human touch at all, as they obey the government guidelines to stay at home and keep 2m (6ft) apart from others.

But touch is “really fundamental” for humans, says Prof Robin Dunbar, evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford – and going without it weakens our close relationships.

The sort of more intimate touching – arm round the shoulder, a pat on the arm and these kind of things reserved for closer friendships and family members – are really important,” he says. They make us feel happier, satisfied and trusting of others.

no touch/Two friends enjoy their lunch together at a safe distance in central Leeds on March 21, 2020, a day after the British government said it would help cover the wages of people hit by the coronavirus outbreak as it tightened restrictions to curb the spread of the disease.
Two friends in Leeds sit apart at a safe distance, before the lockdown came into force

Touch is our first sense to develop in the womb, and research has shown physical contact with others can reduce the effect of stress. Prof Dunbar says the reason humans need physical contact is because of our evolutionary background as primates.

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All primates are intensely social and most probably the most intensely social of all the animals on the planet,” he says. “They build these kind of relationships and friendships with each other through social touch in the form of social grooming – which they do by leafing through the fur. And we still do that.”

“It’s horrible”

Robyn Munday is one of the many millions of people around the world living alone through this lockdown period.

I’m a hugger, I hug everybody,” says Robin, 57, from her home in Victoria, Australia . “I have lots and lots of friends that I hug, I hug my [now grown-up] kids. It’s the one thing I think that I miss the most in all of this.

A photo of Robyn Munday
Robyn says she is able to talk to her children and friends regularly, but misses their hugs

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