Smells like dispirit

Glucose (Stefan Eberhard)

“I wish I had lost my sense of smell,” I thought while swabbing the back of my nasal cavity. I continued to carefully follow the step-by-step instructions that I had been given:

Snap off the end of the elongated cotton swab into the small vial.
Close the vial and place it in the clear plastic ‘specimen transport bag’ affixed with the bright orange biohazard symbol.
Seal the bag and add it to the slim do-it-yourself foldable cardboard box.
Drop off the box at a designated priority postbox.

Less than 36 hours later – in a culmination of supply chain efficiency, scientific innovation, and hard-headed bureaucracy – I received the diagnosis via unsentimental text message: “Your coronavirus test result is negative. You did not have the virus when the test was done.”


Well, sort of.

The reason I had requested the COVID-19 home testing kit in the first place was because weeks earlier my sense of smell and taste had changed – suddenly and drastically.

It all started with a bowl of soup. I had used a recipe that I was familiar with, but this time the smell and taste were all wrong – not just slightly off, but nauseating. It was difficult to pinpoint its unique aroma and flavour, but I could identify the peripheral properties that it evoked: burnt, metallic, caustic, earthy, sickly sweet. Little did I know this experience was only the appetiser to what would become a much more dispiriting situation. Almost everything in my orbit would soon give off this same sickening smell and taste.

As unusual as this initial experience was, it never occurred to me at the time that it might be related to COVID-19. This was mid-2020 and health experts had yet to acknowledge that changes to smell and taste were one of the most prevalent markers of virus infection. Even when this information was made public, it still took months for the UK’s National Health Service to add it to the list of symptoms that determined who qualified for testing. My symptoms suggest that I had been infected earlier; my delay in requesting the home testing kit is probably what resulted in the negative diagnosis.

It has been reported that upwards of three-quarters of otherwise asymptomatic people who test positive for COVID-19 experience some form of olfactory dysfunction, ranging from anosmia (loss of smell), phantosmia (smell hallucinations), or, like me, parosmia (distorted smell). Most will recover within weeks, but experts warn that these symptoms could persist for months, even years. Hapless victims of ‘long COVID’.

One could point to the many clinical reasons for why it would take so long for health authorities to uncover COVID-19’s impact on the olfactory system. But there are other, more societal reasons too. For centuries, the importance of smell has largely been neglected or dismissed. Plato considered it to be “half-formed”. Kant believed it to be the most “ungrateful” and “dispensable” of the senses. Hegel thought it too pedestrian and vulgar to be associated with aesthetics. It isn’t just philosophers who diminish its importance: surveys indicate that most adults rate it as the least important of the senses, the one they would be most willing to lose.

The limits of language might partly be to blame. All senses are inherently subjective, but the senses that make up our chemosensory system – smell and taste – are especially personal, making it more difficult to create a shared vocabulary. Descriptions of smell, in particular, often lack depth or resolution.

As with many other parosmia sufferers, finding the vocabulary to adequately describe the unpleasant odour that now permeated my world was always just beyond my grasp. Despite the wide range of odours I could ascribe to it, the smell was, paradoxically, monotone. With no words to accurately describe it, I resorted to shorthand, calling it “the Covid smell”. I was beginning to understand what Ludwig Wittgenstein meant when he wrote that “the limits of my language means the limits of my world”.

Despite these linguistic shortcomings, our sense of smell still gives us startling superpowers. It helps piece together a narrative of reality in both space and time. Walk into a room and you can immediately intuit what’s cooking on the stove. Walk outside and you’ll know that grass was cut in another part of the neighbourhood hours earlier. It can even help predict the future, as that earthy scent that fills the air just before a rainstorm can attest.

If we weren’t so accustomed to these abilities, they would seem almost mystical. And there was a time when people thought just that. According to Ann-Sophie Barwich, author of Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind, some scholars in the medieval era believed that odours “expressed a pervasive fabric of reality” by “communicating a world of concealed meanings”. Smell, they contended, was a gateway between the physical and metaphysical. This idea may seem archaic now, but as I was learning, it does have some validity: give your normal sense of smell even the slightest of tugs and watch as the delicate fabric of your reality begins to unravel.

Smell and taste are intimately connected, of course – much of what we think of as taste is actually smell. The ‘Covid smell’ and the ‘Covid taste’ were two sides of the same coin. And nowhere was the fabric of my reality becoming more frayed than in my relationship with food.

Food is more than just the matter that fuels our physical body. It defines us as individuals, communities and nations. How you wield a fork can be an outward expression of your pleasures and principles. Eating can be mundane or carnal (or both), yet it is also central to our rituals and celebrations – a balancing act between the sacred and the profane.

If smell is a bridge between our inner experience of food and the outer world, then parosmia is a barrier. Flavours of foods that were once regular parts of my grocery rotation suddenly became unrecognisable: chicken, eggs, onions, tomatoes, peaches, peppers, peanuts, hummus, herbs, mustard, melon, sourdough, sesame seeds, wine, beer, basil, bacon. And more. The food with the most offensive aroma of all was coffee. I survived off a diet of mostly mild foods: plain Greek yoghurt, blueberries, rice, flour tortillas, lettuce, cucumber, tinned tuna, and tea. In the hierarchy of pastries, I used to rank plain scones somewhere near the bottom; now they were an indulgent treat.

To my horror, I had become the very thing that I had long been critical of in others: a picky eater. I never realised before just how easy it is to glide through life when one has few food limitations. It’s just as the Canadian media theorist and social critic Marshall McLuhan explained: a pervasive environment is always beyond perception. “We don’t know who discovered water,” he said, “but it wasn’t a fish.” To an unfussy eater, the culinary environment is a lot like water to a fish – it isn’t noticeable until they’ve been beached.

Among the wreckage left in the wake of parosmia are disoriented relationships – not just with food, but with the environment, with others, and with one’s self. Even the outdoors became full of hazards. My daily runs through North London, once a much-needed outlet during early lockdowns, became an exercise in futility. I soon learned which particular streets and parts of the park had ‘the Covid smell’, but they were almost impossible to avoid. The experience left me envious of the people whose only COVID-19 symptom was losing their sense of smell. Having no sense of smell, I suspected, must be better than this.

As demoralising as the situation was, I knew that it was impossible to entirely avoid. So, I adapted and learned to live with it as best I could. In a year marked by restrictions on socialising, I still made efforts to join friends for takeaway or drinks in the park, social distancing rules permitting. But I largely stopped talking about parosmia to most people; my failed attempts to explain it never did it any justice anyway.

It was late-2020 when I left London to be with family in New Brunswick on Canada’s Atlantic coast. After a two-week quarantine, I was invited by friends to dinner. This being Canada, the main ingredient in the homemade massaman curry was moose meat. It’s a gamey dish with rich ingredients and fragrant spices. And it tasted… normal. Great even. No ‘Covid smell’. No ‘Covid taste’. For fear of jinxing it, I celebrated this small victory quietly to myself.

Slowly, my sense of smell and taste began to normalise. I’m visited by parosmia’s ghost still today, but its prevalence and intensity have greatly diminished – sporadic reminders of living under its spectre for more than seven months. As if roused from a bad dream, my senses began to reawaken. Not just my sense of smell and taste, but my sense of self, too.

I’m tasting and smelling for the first time, for a second time.

[Note: This essay was runner-up for the New Philosopher Writers’ Award XXX ‘perception’.]

Image: Glucose, by Stefan Eberhard, Wellcome Collection