While the COVID-19 pandemic has been full of disruptions – from homeschooling to cancelled events and vacated office buildings – simultaneously it has reshaped our sensory landscapes. As the world that we have had to navigate has changed, so too have our experiences and understandings of touch, smell, taste, sight and sound.
Historian Mark Smith has dubbed this a period of “sensory revolution”.
As scholars whose work focuses on the history of smell and the relationship between touch and emotional labour, we have been drawn to questions about the senses during the pandemic.
Our collaborative project website includes a Pandemic Sensory Archive that people can contribute to, interviews with sensory experts along with collated academic and popular work published on the senses and COVID-19.
Attending explicitly to the senses is a key way of tracking, recording and making sense of this time of immense flux, and for shining a light on inequalities that have been deepened by responses to the pandemic.
Here we offer some reflections of the findings we’ve gleaned so far.
As the crisis began to unfold in 2020, touch became salient for people in new ways. With the initial emphasis on surfaces rather than aerosol transmission, touch carried with it fears – touch became ‘haunting’.
Citizens were told to avoid handshakes, touching their faces and thoroughly wash their hands.
So-called ‘social distancing’ was promoted as a way of avoiding casual encounters and lockdowns were implemented across the world.
With many working from home and starved of their regular human contact, people began to experience ‘touch hunger’. But this privileged ability to withdraw from the public in the name of safety was not available to everyone.
For many delivery workers classified as ‘essential’, of whom large numbers around the world are migrant workers, research suggests thatthe onus was often on them from employers to maintain ‘contactless’ delivery, creating a sense that these workers as already contaminated or high risk.
With the threat of aerosol transmission, the air became ‘suspicious’.
Being able to smell someone else’s perfume or deodorant became a sign of too-close proximity, and wearing face masks made people more aware of the smell of their own breath.
Sanitisers became the ‘scent’ of the pandemic in many parts of the world and, in general, the shift to the domestic for many meant less varied smellscapes.
The ‘the smell-lessness of every Zoom’ left some people longing for the smells of ‘normal’ life, from the sweat of the sporting field to the musk of a secondhand bookshop.
Much of the emphasis on smell during the pandemic has also been on the experience of losing one’s sense of smell as a result of contracting the virus. However, research suggests that this symptom has unfolded in uneven ways, with smell-loss more likely among groups already facing issues of environmental pollution.
Lockdowns led many people to refocus on domestic pursuits and cooking, coffee-making and baking became hugely popular. Cooking at home provided many with a sense of routine in changing times – with many households now together at mealtimes rather than dispersed.
But supply chain issues also led to shortages of certain products for many and our supermarkets became sites of anxiety. Fast-food companies jumped on these insecurities, marketing their products as deliverable in safe ‘contactless’ ways and with gustatory reliability.
Activities like sourdough bread making became a class marker of those with the time and ‘taste’ to undertake the practice. Some researchers have even suggested that preserving the microbes of home fermentation practices might be a good way to archive the pandemic experience.
But many people also faced lost income and food insecurity. And some who contracted COVID-19 lost their sense of taste.
Not only have the sights of ordinary life shifted – with scenes of empty city streets, stadiums and airports – but visuals have generally played a major role in communicating public health information during the pandemic.
From graphs of daily case numbers, deaths and vaccinations to QR codes and markers on the floor for physical distancing – the visual imagery of daily life was transformed.
Visuals have also been deployed in the crisis to spread misinformation, often targeting vaccination or attempting to case doubt on the severity and reality of the virus itself.
More positively, visuals have also been used as a powerful storytelling tool during the pandemic, highlighting the stories of health care workers and the experiences that might otherwise go unseen.
Soundscapes shifted notably especially during periods of lockdown, including the silenced bells of many churches, televised sports resorting to canned crowd noise, and the sound of birdsong replacing traffic.
With many people becoming aware of their changed sound environments, complaints about neighbourhood noise increased.
Certain sounds also came to be associated with the virus – from coughing, to test and trace mobile phone alerts, and the relentless noise of sirens in areas with rapidly growing cases.
While the pandemic transformed many of our sensory environments, we might justly ask how many of these changes will survive as people return to their ordinary daily routines of work and leisure?
Perhaps the pandemic hasn’t been a sensory ‘revolution’ but a process of sensory re-sensitisation.
Through the pandemic’s changes to our sensory rhythms and relationships, perhaps we have become more aware of the tactile, olfactory, gustatory, visual and auditory elements of our – and others’ – ‘normal’ lives.
Perhaps this new sensory awareness will lead to a sensory revolution unfolding in the longer term? It’s something we plan to keep track of.
You can view and contribute to the Pandemic Sensory Archive at www.archiveofintimacy.com.
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