Fight Coronavirus by Getting Way Too Competitive About Hand-Washing

The rinse-and-dash is over. Welcome to the era of extreme scrubbing

People are hoarding bleach, wipes, hand sanitizer and face masks as the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, continues to spread around the globe, with nearly 100,000 cases and more than 3,000 deaths in total. But health experts say none of those products is as helpful as washing your hands — frequently and thoroughly — to avoid transmission of the disease.

Plenty of people wash their hands as a matter of due course, in the midst of a life-threatening pandemic or not. Even they, however, may be surprised to learn that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that you scrub your hands for 20 full seconds, an interval of time that tends to feel a lot longer than it actually is. Their recommendation for guaranteeing a thorough wash is to hum or sing the “Happy Birthday” song “from beginning to end twice.”

Ugh, horrible.

Thankfully, music lovers have come up with quite a few tunes that include catchier 20-second refrains — you can choose from Beyoncé’s “Love on Top,” Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Toto’s meteorologically inaccurate “Africa,” and if you feel like abruptly weeping, Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” Make your bathroom sound like a karaoke bar.

Now, if you’ve exhausted all the songs fit for this purpose, or simply can’t bring yourself to hum, there’s another way to ingrain the habit of effective scrubbing. It’s a strategy that should be familiar, at least, to any dude who has turned needlessly intense over something he was doing with his bros — every dude, in other words. The trick is this: make it a competition.

When I’m finishing up in the men’s room at the office, and I see a guy arrive at the sinks after I’ve started washing, I cannot help but continue lathering until he’s done his minimal scrub, rinsed his hands and walked off toward the paper towels. It’s a thrilling victory, one that permits me to think that my antiseptic force field is much stronger than the average person’s. Absolute immunity.

In fact, to judge by social media, lots of folks are always game for an endurance round of scalding hot water and multiple soap-ups when using a public restroom alongside someone else. It seems to be among the only instances of human pettiness actually working in our favor: The motivation to be cleaner and therefore more germ-free than thy neighbor has overwhelming Darwinian appeal.

Just as I run faster on an official 5K than I do when jogging by myself, simply because I want to finish ahead of a wiry 42-year-old I’ve randomly assigned to be my rival on the course, I’m extra-committed to sudsing the spaces between my fingers when a coworker is watching. That’s right, pal. These digits are pristine. You jealous? Wanna do something about it? Go ahead, sneeze right on my palms — I dare you. I want an excuse to wash them again. 

Sadly, other precautions that may help shield you from coronavirus, like staying away from crowds and not touching your eyes, nose and mouth, aren’t so easily transformed into a sport. (Although an Introversion Olympics does sound compelling, if not quite action-packed.) And when you’re washing your hands at home, there’s nobody to measure yourself against; it’s back to the “Happy Birthday” grind.

Still, you can think of this as “practice” for “the big game” that is the packed restroom at a movie theater, bar or airport. Look up at the mirror, stare deeply into your own eyes, and refuse to step back from the faucet til you forget how long you’ve been there. That’s how champions train, and it’s what you have to do to maintain your edge. Remember: You may be infected with coronavirus despite your best efforts, but you can always flex on a fool barely trying to keep it at bay.

Clear water, full soap dispensers, can’t lose.