How the pandemic changed coughing as we know it

alt="coughing cat" Is there such a thing as harmless cough anymore? (Image: Sandhya Raghavan)

The other day I was at the marketplace. The place is usually sardine-packed with at least three people in your personal space at any given time. There’s utter disregard for social distancing rules and mask ettiquete.

Yet, something miraculous happened — someone coughed. Instantly, it cleared a two-meter space around the cougher as people retreated away from him.

Made me wonder whether a few fake coughs can give me some instant personal space in the crowded market. It also got me thinking about the changing semiotics of cough in the post-pandemic world.

Coughing can be a symptom of many things, ranging from allergies to asthma to acidity. Ailment aside, coughing forms a big part of our non-verbal communication. We used it to cut the tension, interrupt someone, draw attention or even express an opinion.

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Things have changed in a post-pandemic world, of course, where there’s no such thing as an innocuous cough anymore. If you must cough or sneeze in the presence of others, make your peace with being pariah-ed.

Coughing and sneezing in the pandemic

A study conducted by OnePoll for Flonase found that 55% of people experience panic when they sneeze in public even if they are masked up. There’s a looming fear of being judged by others.

“I get very self-conscious while coughing these days. Even when I clearing my throat, I can sense people moving away from me when I am in public,” said one of my friends and my sounding board.

This has led to discreet yet creative ways to get the coughs out.

“I’ve found ways to cough softly to avoid getting stared at when I am in public,” said another. “Just when you feel a cough coming, just exhale through the mouth with some force. That should ease it. But be sure to have your mask on,” he adds.

” We need to remember that other things exist, not just covid. Common cold, allergies, smokers, etc.,” said a Redditor on the topic.

Also Read: Embracing ugliness in the pandemic

Coughing and coronavirus

Cough is the principal symptom of Covid-19 that’s been imprinted in our public memory. Remember the godawful “corona caller tune” where a Covid awareness message is preceded by sounds of a dude coughing? I think that set the tone for us: Cough is covid and covid is cough.

Cough manifests in the acute phase of the Covid-19 and persists in the post-infective phase. Coughing also causes the transmission of the coronavirus through respiratory droplets.

There is no prize for guessing why people will avoid you like the plague if you happen to cough in their proximity. The reason is rooted in our survival instincts and our will to avoid diseases at any cost; it’s called disgust.

How disgust helps in avoiding diseases

While we have no issues wiping snot off our own noses or sweat off our brows, we’d rather sell our soul to the devil than do the same to another human being. Being in the company of a coughing person invokes similar sentiments. What is so inherently bad about other’s people’s bodily juices that makes us uncomfortable?

Mucous, urine, faeces and spittle are vehicles of pathogens that can transmit diseases. Who in their right mind would want to get some on themselves?

We are wired to feel disgusted as a part of disease-avoidance behaviour. It’s a system that first begun in our ancestors to recognise objects or situations linked to the risk of infection. It made us switch on our hygienic behaviour, reducing the chances of a close encounter with parasites of the micro and macro kind.

In an evolved society like ours, disgust played a bigger role, driving us to isolate antisocial people and social rule-breakers, according to this study.

In short, disgust helps us beat germs and live longer. In the pandemic, people’s survival instincts are already dialled up. Any vocalization of the coughing or throat-clearing kind can understandably cause visible panic in those around you.