New disease revives old traditions

An editorial for the Barriere Star Journal

By Keith McNeill

“Wash your hands before you eat.”

I distinctly remember my mother constantly telling me that as I grew up.

The significance of what she was saying didn’t dawn on me until recently, however.

My mother was born in 1913.

That means she would have been five or six years old when the so-called Spanish Flu swept around the world and killed, by some estimates, between 50 and 100 million people.

My mother wouldn’t have been old enough to have been fully aware of what was going on but likely her mother would have observed that those families whose members washed their hands tended to stay healthier than those who did not.

Mothers tend to notice those kinds of things.

My mother learned that lesson and passed it on to her children.

Now, with Covid-19 being declared a worldwide pandemic, that lesson about hand-washing is being learned anew.

Of course, washing your hands before meals did not start with the 1918 influenza outbreak.

No doubt our farming ancestors and before that the hunter-gatherers learned that it is best to have clean hands before putting things in your mouth.

Hand-washing is a common practice in many religions.

Jewish law and custom prescribes hand-washing before and after eating bread, before eating dipped fruit or vegetables, before worship, before a priestly blessing, after sleeping and on other occasions.

Muslims pray five times a day and before each prayer are supposed to wash their hands in a prescribed manner.

Sikhism also has precise rules for hand-washing and requires it at several points during the day.

Roman Catholics and some other Christians sprinkle their hands with holy water before the consecration of bread and wine.

In some other West African countries such as Ghana, hands must be washed before raising anything to one’s lips.

There is a proverb: “When a young person washes well his hands, he eats with the elders.”

In Hindu, Islam and some African cultures, the left hand is considered “unclean” and reserved for “hygienic” actions. Only the right hand is used for eating.

Here is a heretical thought.

Many religions require a supplicant to wash his or her hands before praying. What if what matters most to God is the hand-washing and not the prayer?

Supplicant: “Dear God, spare me from this terrible disease.”

God: “Did you wash your hands?”


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