Greetings In The Time of Coronavirus: To Shake or Not to Shake

Consider the humble handshake…

Dating back to approximately the 5th century BCE and popularized in the 17th century by Quakers looking for a more egalitarian gesture than bowing or tipping one’s hat, the handshake has become the defacto greeting used in international business situations. To some degree, it has also replaced many traditional forms of personal acknowledgment once used in various cultures around our planet.

Greek goddesses Hera (Queen of the Gods and the wife and sister of Zeus) and Athena (goddess of wisdom, war and the crafts, among other things) handshaking, late 5th century BCE, Acropolis Museum, Athens. Photo: Henry Lewis courtesy of the Acropolis Museum, Athens.

A handshake: Donald and Me (or I, uh?)

While searching through news articles this week, I discovered that I have something in common with Donald Trump. [You, dear reader, may be surprised, but imagine how I felt!] It seems that it’s a well-established fact – as opposed to an alternative fact – that Trump is a germaphobe and will often go to great lengths to prevent exposure to coughs, sneezes, and yes, even the common handshake. He reportedly once wrote that the practice of shaking hands was “barbaric

The infamous 2017 handshake between President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron. Macron is showing Trump who has the strongest grip! Photo: Courtesy of Bloomberg Politics

I admit that I too have occasionally been known to recoil in horror (at least internally) when meeting new people and feeling the pressure to swap sweaty palms. It’s not that I dislike being touched. On the contrary, I think human touch is essential to an individual’s well-being. Part of my reluctance to press hand flesh with a stranger is because of my childhood upbringing.

My mother, always a stickler for proper hygiene, wouldn’t allow my sisters and I to share drinks or take bites off the same piece of food the way many of my friends did with their siblings. While I realize that the teacher – and nurturing mother – in her wanted us to be instilled with good habits that would help us to live the healthiest lives possible, she may have gone a bit too far in training me for life in a messy world.

Added to my earlier conditioning to avoid germs whenever possible, many years of traveling and working in a variety of different cultures and contexts has allowed me to observe that far too many men leave public toilets without washing their hands. GROSS! Therefore, being a bit of a germaphobe myself, not to mention having an undependable immune system due to Crohn’s Disease, my level of concern is automatically heightened whenever there’s an outbreak of a new strain of flu or a coronavirus such as COVID-19 that’s easily transmitted from one hand to another.

While I assure you that I don’t let my own fear of illness prevent me from getting out there and enjoying life, I do exercise a degree of caution depending on the situation. Up to this point, however, I’ve avoided adopting a glove-wearing lifestyle like the late Michael Jackson or Howard Hughes. No, I believe it’s best to face our fears, or if we simply can’t, then we can at least find ways to bypass those fears.

Illustration from Kaiser Health News. Note these are men’s hands!

Fear Doesn’t Help, Creativity Does

According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO), touching a contaminated surface and then touching your nose, mouth or eyes is one of the principle ways viruses are transmitted.Trust me, no matter how conscious you try to be about not touching your face, it’s incredibly difficult since most of us live in ways that make it impractical to wash our hands every five minutes.

A study cited by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) which gauged the transfer of bacteria during greeting exchange showed that “that transfer is dramatically reduced when engaging in alternative so-called ‘dap’ greetings known as the high five and fist bump compared with a traditional handshake. Adoption of the fist bump as a greeting could substantially reduce the transmission of infectious disease between individuals.” For those interested in the science behind the common handshake, here are some research results from a study at the University of Colorado.

However, my intention is not to further increase the paranoia that already surrounds this pandemic. Instead, why not reduce our risks of spreading germs by using some creative thinking.

As COVID-19 continues to spread around the globe, people are finding ways to adapt their personal habits and daily routines in order to limit their risk of exposure to this new virus. Here’s an interesting video of some recycled old and entirely new ways of greeting that are catching on as alternatives to the hand shake. Note what’s become known as the ‘Wuhan Shake.’

If none of these new styles strikes your fancy, we could even risk a bit of cultural appropriation and adopt a traditional form of greeting from a non-Western culture. When I lived in Southeast Asia, I was quite impressed by the traditional way locals greeted each other, as well as tourists and expats.

The Thai ‘Wai’, also known as the ‘Sampeah’ in neighboring Cambodia, is a lovely greeting performed by placing the hands together in front of one’s chest and bowing slightly in a gesture meant to honor the person being greeted.

An example of two people using the Thai ‘Wai’ to greet each other. Note: You don’t have to be this close to the person being greeted. Photo: iTravel Channel

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has called on locals to use Sampeah instead of shaking hands to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “We should avoid shaking hands until the Covid-19 is over. Instead, we use the gesture of Sampeah to greet each other, it’s easy and fast,” he said in a speech at the closing ceremony of the Cambodian Health Ministry’s annual conference.

The Wai and Sampeah were adopted from an earlier Hindu gesture known as Namaste which means “I bow to the divine in you.” Also known as a ‘posture’ in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions, excavations dating to between 3000 BCE and 2000 BCE have revealed male and female terracotta figures in the Namaste posture.

An employee at the Oberoi Hotel in New Delhi, India demonstrating the ‘Namaste’ greeting in the hotel’s lobby. Photo Credit: Saptarshi Biswas / CC BY (

Final Thoughts

I realize that bowing to others may not come easily to everyone, but whether a Wai, a Sampeah or a Namaste, I find these greetings to be incredibly humbling. Couldn’t many of us (myself included) use a dose of humility during these days of divisive politics and social media ‘look at me, me, me’ mania?

And, perhaps while we’re developing a deeper sense of personal humility, we can also reduce the risk of passing on an illness to others!


Categories: Health and Well-beingTags: , , , , , , ,


  1. Excellent idea Henry! Indeed, a healthy and humble way to greet one another. By the way, over here the tradition is kissing on the cheek. Not just once, nor twice, but three times! It’s something I do my utmost to avoid, even before the Coronavirus.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Denzil,

      🙂 Yes, I’ve experienced the cheek kissing in much of Europe. It’s true here in Colombia as well when one meets a female friend. Enjoy your wanderings around your beautiful country!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The video wouldn’t play. But excellent post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It depends on one’s immune system, of course. I’ve always had a strong immune system and rarely get sick. But I spent my childhood exposed to germs, from diverse animals to the dirt and grime of playing in yards, woods, and creeks. Research shows that early life exposure to germs strengthens the immune system for life.

    So, our very fear of germs causes children to have compromised immune systems and, in that case, they have good reason to fear germs. The high-carb standard American diet (SAD) also contributes to a compromised immune system. A recent study on mice showed that while in ketosis the immune system is more effective in fighting off the flu.

    For those with already compromised immune systems, it isn’t too late. The keto diet and other very low-carb diets have been shown to be effective in treating a variety of autoimmune disorders, even entirely reversing symptoms. But as long as one’s immune system is compromised, it’s understandable that one might be wary of handshakes.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Benjamin,

      Thanks as always for your very informed comments.

      Yes, you’re absolutely right about early childhood exposure to germs being a positive aspect of developing a robust immune system. I had the good fortune of growing up on a farm, and despite my mother’s tendency toward cleanliness, I spent time outside as much as possible and did swallow my share of dirt. Taking care of oneself at any age – by eating a balanced diet, getting plenty of exercise, getting enough sleep and having coping mechanisms to keep stress at reasonable levels – is the key to being as healthy as possible, as well as maintaining a healthy immune system. All those would be in addition to low alcohol consumption and completely abstaining from smoking.

      It’s taken a lot of work, and I’ve also been lucky, but I’ve been able to maintain my health in a way that’s allowed me to continue living, working and traveling abroad for the past 16 years. Based on my journey and personal research, I don’t think there’s a one size fits all solution for managing autoimmune diseases. Just as each of us varies genetically and has been further individually affected by the environments in which we grew up, so too finding a mix of therapies to use as a maintenance routine is fundamental to controlling exacerbations of disease. I cook almost all my meals at home (and have for years), haven’t eaten fast food or had a soda in decades and have been a vegetarian for 30 years. Meat is impossible for me to digest due to the terrible gut inflammation it causes.

      There are some very good books out there that also have valuable guidance for those who have been recently diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. It’s no accident that there has been an epidemic of autoimmune diseases in the USA as people have forgone exercise for the convenience of driving their personal cars and adopted diets high in processed foods (and carbohydrates as you note).

      Liked by 1 person

      • The down side to germ exposure in childhood is vulnerability. Kids do sometimes die from infections. That was true prior to modern medicine. But if you survive childhood, you are good for life. I had a major knee infection in elementary school that led to being hospitalized.

        My oldest brother was always a clean freak. He hated dirt and being in nature, even getting mad when his shoes got scuffed. He also had allergies when young. I don’t know if the lack of germ exposure caused the allergies or the allergies made him germ phobic.

        Out of curiosity, do you eat dairy and eggs? I was temporarily taking a break from those foods, but they are awesome for general health. Plenty of fat-soluble vitamins, choline, etc can be obtained from non-meat animal foods. The fat-soluble vitamins, in particular, are important for immune health.

        I eat healthy now. But to be honest, I can’t really credit a healthy lifestyle for my good health. I did exercise a lot when younger, continuing off and on into adulthood, and that probably helped. Still, decades of depression didn’t contribute to healthy eating and living.

        I will give my mother credit. She always encouraged the family by bringing us to parks. In general, I took many walks with her growing up and walking became a habit for me. But most importantly, she instilled a general attitude of healthy, such as being thoughtful about what I eat.

        By the way, here in Iowa City, Dr. Terry Wahls has her practice at the University hospital and VA hospital. You might’ve heard of her. She has multiple sclerosis, to the point of not being able to walk, and then reversed her symptoms with a nutrient-dense and ketogenic paleo diet. She reversed the symptoms of MS patients with the same diet in a clinical study as well. She particularly thinks the nutrient-density part was important, both in terms of plant foods and animal foods. If you follow the Wahls protocol, you are required to eat massive amounts of certain kinds of veggies every day.

        I’m glad research like that is being done. We are beginning to understand some of the causal mechanisms behind such diseases of civilization.

        Liked by 1 person

      • As for avoiding germs, that is about impossible for me, even if I wanted to try. I work as a cashier. I don’t shake hands of my customers, but there is plenty of passing of germs. I handle money and credit cards, the latter being known for their diverse germ communities.

        To be honest, I worry more about the toxins from the receipt paper. But if the coronavirus comes to Iowa City, I surely will be exposed to it. I interact with maybe a thousand people per week. And this town is filled with people traveling from other places, including many Chinese. So far, this disease hasn’t shown up in Iowa yet.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Benjamin. One of my closest friends in Seattle has MS. I will pass this info on to him.

        I’m not vegan, although I have tried to be at times. I eat eggs occasionally and have yogurt every day. At least for me, fermented dairy products such as yogurt and kefir are very soothing for my digestive system, plus, as you say they’re a good source of vitamins and minerals.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You’re right, it’s impossible to live a full life and avoid germs. Wishing you continued good health!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Just this morning, there were three confirmed cases of coronavirus in the county I live in. It apparently originated from a cruise ship that went to Egypt. My mother thinks she knows the three people, as she socializes with them. Fortunately, she hasn’t seen them since they got back. Still, many people might’ve been infected before it was caught. I’m not worried for myself. But my parents are older and with health problems. And my two brothers and their families always seem to catch every single cold or flu that passes by.

        I’ve long been concerned about my nieces and nephew, as they seem to have weak immune systems. This is probably because they’ve been raised on an unhealthy diet, basically a vegetarian version of SAD consisting of mostly high-carb processed foods with lots of inflammatory, oxidative, and mutagenic seed oils. Even though they aren’t vegans, they don’t eat much in the way of dairy and eggs. I wish more people understood the value of a healthy diet. Ignoring the mental health issues, a compromised immune system is no small concern.

        By the way, my parents said that at their church people are no longer shaking hands. It was suggested by the minister. But my mother noticed that the minister’s wife kept coughing into her hands and then touching things. I’m not paranoid about germs. Still, one would think that at this point people should know not to cough into their hands. I guess for some older people old habits die hard.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi. I suppose that a good degree of caution is appropriate right now. That said, I heartily shook the hand of a friend last night.

    Neil Scheinin

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally understand Neil. I went to a local concert in my town in Colombia on Friday night and shook many hands as I met a lot of new people. It’s just important after such interactions to wash your hands before touching your face, eyes or mouth. I really try to temper my germ phobic tendencies and not let them interfere with enjoying life.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I like the Namaste bow idea instead of a handshake. The idea of “the divine in me recognizes the divine in you,” as my yoga teacher says, could be a building block to a more peaceful world. I enjoyed the “besos” in Latin America, but it seemed far less attractive during cold season. -Rebecca

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Really enjoyed this, Henry. A welcome, refreshing take on the virus!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. It’s a good thing when a virus causes us to question centuries-old common practices. Perhaps, this minor change in our behavior would open that sealed window in our brain against the much greater changes needed to save our species for self-extinction.

    While I’m all for the Sampeah or Namaste greeting, I plan to adopt our Vice President’s elbow bump greeting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rosaliene,

      Yes, I agree that the elbow bump is probably a more acceptable, and therefore successful, way of greeting in the USA.

      As scientists have warned, climate change will bring more famine, disease conflict as populations are forced to complete for increasingly limited supplies of food and water. Perhaps, this new coronavirus will cause more people to reflect on humanity’s relationship to the natural world.

      I’m also happy to hear that the Chinese government is banning the sale of exotic wildlife (the most likely source of COVID-19 transmission from animal to human), but they also need to BAN and ENFORCE the trade in wildlife for medicinal purposes as well. Maximum pressure should be exerted by the UN and world governments to this end.

      On a sidenote, I’ve been tardy in downloading your book ” Under the Tamarind Tree” because I simply didn’t have time to read it carefully and enjoy it fully. I’m going to do that very soon!

      Liked by 1 person

      • “Perhaps, this new coronavirus will cause more people to reflect on humanity’s relationship to the natural world.”
        ~ This is also my hope, Henry.

        Thanks for buying my novel and posting the Lulu link. Hope you find it an enjoyable read 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Good article. The idea of Namaste greeting is a nice idea. My daughter (like her parents) is a Star Trek fan also suggested the Vulcan salute of Live Long and Prosper. Which is also a nice way of wishing others well. Unfortunately it may only work with other fellow Star Trek fans.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. At church we have changed the way we pass the peace so that instead of hugging or shaking hands, we use elbow bumps, tapping feet together (an oriental custom we were told?), or just using the 1960’s hippies “peace” sign. The coronavirus has given us an opportunity to look for new ways of caring for our neighbor in perhaps some unexpected and creative ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sounds like your church fellowship is taking positive steps to keep everyone healthy.

      I don’t know the origins of tapping feet together as a greeting. Most East Asian cultures think of one’s feet as being dirty, to the point that it’s rude to point the bottom of one’s feet at a person, but especially an image of Buddha. The first time I saw the foot tapping greeting was in the video I shared. I need to do some research. It’s an interesting way to greet.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Another way to greet people is the traditional greeting of right hand and forearm over heart as practiced in the Middle East and Central Asia.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I experienced that during my 8 years living in the Middle East and think it’s another beautiful way of greeting. In Oman, they would do that but also shake hands and sometimes touch nose to nose as well. Thanks for adding this!


  11. Thinking I am probably not worried enough about germs! I love the traditions in so many countries that involve touching — whether hand shakes, kisses, or hugs. I was one of those parents that said “we’ll be right over!” when one of my son’s friends had a cold. I believe, perhaps wrongly, that the more germs we are exposed to, the more immunities we build. My biases are probably not wise for this particular virus so I am reining it in. Vamos a ver.
    Thanks Henry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was watching a doctor talk on a news show. He argued that the media is fear-mongering. His point is that, in terms of death rate of the infected, the common flu is far more dangerous. it is a good point to keep in mind, although coronavirus is still spreading and we don’t know yet the full outcome.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Of course, the media sensationalizes big stories to attract larger audiences for their advertisers, but especially in the face of the Trump administration’s denials of the severity of this epidemic, I’m glad there are other viewpoints being expressed by the medical experts. The current lock-down of the entire country of Italy in an effort to stem the spread of the deadly virus there is a case in point that this is indeed serious. Due to there still being so much the medical experts don’t know about this new virus, the economic tool that’s being exacted is (and will continued to be) immense.

        As for the doctor you mention who was speaking on TV, their assertion that the common flu is more dangerous doesn’t fit with the mortality statistics I’ve seen in relation to this virus when compared to the common flu–with studies showing that the mortality rates so far from the new coronavirus are considerably higher. Statistics do show that the common flu kills larger numbers of people in a season, however, we are still in the early days of this epidemic. Currently, I only trust the WHO, CDC (to a slightly lesser degree) and Dr. Anthony Fauci (head of the NIH) for factual information.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I generally agree with your position. I don’t think governments are overreacting. In some countries, governments are surely not being aggressive enough toward containment. But I’m always wary of the sensationalistic nature of for-profit news reporting. I can’t say I have a strong opinion, though. I’m certainly not advising people not to be cautious.

        Even if it is no worse than a bad flu season, hundreds of thousands could die. And if it mutates, millions could die. That is what I got from reading different sources, how much uncertainty there is and that means it is hard to predict. Even the data differs drastically depending on who, where, and how the data is being collected.

        South Korea did extensive testing of its population and found a fatality rate of 0.6%. But even at the lower end of the estimates, it is certainly nothing to dismiss. Also, it could end up being an underestimate. The Chinese patients that fell victim to the disease took almost a month to die. We won’t really know for a while the full results.

        Coronavirus does seem to be different in who is hit hardest, specifically the elderly and those with severe health conditions. That is unlike the flu that kills a more broad spectrum of people, including children. As far as I know, no child has yet died of coronavirus which should be comforting to parents of young children. So, if you are in the susceptible category, as my parents are, coronavirus is a particular concern.

        There are definitely many estimations, interpretations, and opinions. The fact that coronavirus is hard to detect early on adds to teh uncertainty, anxiety, and disagreements. It could blow up or fizzle out. Until we know more, there is no advantage to underestimating the risk. Overreaction does come with costs but far less than a failure to meet a potential pandemic.

        “Another worrying factor about COVID19 is its comparatively high transmission rate, with an estimated R0 of 2 or 3.

        “However, not all authorities appear to agree with that figure. The March 3 briefing by the WHO claims COVID-19 “does not transmit as efficiently as influenza, from the data we have so far. With influenza, people who are infected but not yet sick are major drivers of transmission, which does not appear to be the case for COVID-19.””

        “Italy’s surprise blowout of the new coronavirus, dubbed Covid-19 by the WHO, shows that — despite the country bursting onto the scene over the last few days — their mortality rate is similar to China’s. This is actually good news.

        “If this turns out to be true in other countries where public health data is more trustworthy, then one can assume that China is not entirely underestimating the mortality rate.”

        “Looking at data from countries with robust testing systems does support the idea that the disease’s mortality rate may be lower than 3.4%. Countries that have tested significant numbers of people are generally reporting lower mortality rates than those, like the U.S., that have tested in far lower numbers and with a stronger focus on severe cases. This suggests that when testing networks are broadened to catch people with less serious illnesses, and case counts then reflect this range of severity, mortality rates go down.

        “The mortality rate in South Korea, where more than 1,100 tests have been administered per million residents, comes out to just 0.6%, for example. In the U.S., where only seven tests have been administered per million residents, the mortality rate is above 5%. […]

        “Few countries with significant testing capacity are reporting mortality rates above 2%, but Italy has proven an outlier. Even with 638 tests given per million people, the country is still reporting a mortality rate of nearly 4%. While the exact reason for the discrepancy is unclear, it could point to differences in the country’s testing strategy, the specific test it is using or something unique about the actual outbreak there.

        “Even when taking the current estimated global mortality rate of 3.4% at face value, COVID-19 looks more like influenza than other once-novel coronaviruses. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) killed about 10% of the people who got it, while Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) was even deadlier, killing 34% of patients. At least so far, COVID-19 does seem to be more lethal than the seasonal flu, but it’s closer to that end of the spectrum.”

        “There are several reasons why, when all is said and done, the final death rate could be higher or lower than the WHO’s most recent calculation.

        “Among the reasons why 3.4 percent could be an overestimate: People who caught the coronavirus but experienced mild symptoms  – or no symptoms at all  – may not have sought treatment.

        “Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during congressional testimony March 4 that there might not be very many cases of people who are infected with the coronavirus and don’t display any symptoms, despite early fears.

        “But mild cases are easily undercounted, said David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, who added that the true death rate is likely “lower than observation.”

        “Undercounting is what happened during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, according to Penn State University’s Maciej Boni, who wrote that scientists originally overestimated the fatality rate of that virus, which “turned out to be much milder than was thought in the initial weeks.”

        “When diseases break out, doctors tend to see and treat the sickest patients first, said Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

        “The earliest reported cases are not a random sample of cases, he said, but rather a sample of the patients with severe symptoms who may be most likely to die.

        “A number of British experts, writing for a science website, agreed.

        “”What we are observing is the tip of the iceberg,” said Toni Ho, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Virus Research, in the blog post. She noted that expanded testing could lead countries to identify some of the mild cases that would bring the death rate down.

        “South Korea, which set up drive-thru clinics to screen thousands of people, had identified 5,766 confirmed cases and 35 deaths as of March 5. That’s a nationwide case fatality rate of 0.6 percent.”

        “Aylward said that across China, about 80% of cases are mild, about 14% are severe, and about 6% become critically ill. The case fatality rate — the percentage of known infected people who die — is between 2% and 4% in Hubei province, and 0.7% in other parts of China, he said.

        “The lower rate outside of Hubei is likely due to the draconian social distancing measures China has put in place to try to slow spread of the virus. Other parts of China have not had the huge explosion of cases seen in Hubei, Aylward said.

        “A case fatality rate of between 2% to 4% would be catastrophic, if the virus spreads widely and infects a lot of people. Even a case fatality rate of 0.7% — which means 7 out of every 1,000 infected people would die — is sobering. It is seven times the fatality rate for seasonal flu, which is estimated to kill between 290,000 and 650,000 people a year globally.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the additional information. It’s up to each of us to remain informed and use common sense in our everyday interactions.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I like hugs and kisses too Kim. I’ve just grown weary of the obligatory hand shake (especially when it involves sweaty palms :-), plus I think it’s potentially capable of spreading far more germs than a peck on the cheek or hug. I agree with your germ theory, except in the case of a completely new virus to which no one has any immunity. I’m out each day interacting with people, but just trying to be responsible to both them and myself. Enjoy your travels!


  12. Very good article with some very interesting ideas about our handshake versus other areas. I may adopt the right hand and forearm over heart. Simple and can be changed mid stream of offering a handshake.
    It’s absolutely right that you can’t compare the results of “flu” with results of corona virus because this is not over and not near enough testing kits are available to do studies. Everyone be careful!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jane,

      Yes, the CDC and US government response – especially involving testing for the virus – has been totally inadequate. The British health system (NHS) has performed thousands more tests than the USA within a country that has a much smaller population. My friends in the UK love the NHS and think America is very backward for not having a similar system that can easy act in coordination to face health threats, rather than America’s terribly fragmented system that’s showing it’s warts currently. Stay healthy!


  13. Excellent post, Henry! You write some really fabulous articles.
    Yes, my hubby has said the same thing about men not washing their hands when using public washrooms.
    Totally gross!
    I’ve been washing my hands so much over the last few weeks, they feel like dried autumn leaves. I just hope they don’t crumble and blow away in the wind!

    Liked by 1 person

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