Coronavirus

When COVID Deprives French Winemakers Of Their Sense Of Smell

'Smell blindness,' or anosmia, a common coronavirus symptom, isn't a pleasant experience for anyone. But for an oenologist, it's also a serious professional handicap.

Woman at wine testing, in Tasmania, Australia.
Woman at wine testing, in Tasmania, Australia.
Frank Niedercorn

The first thing Nicolas Garde noticed that morning in March 2020 was that he felt off — "bizarre," in his words. "After an hour, I realized that I could only smell a few aromas," the resident of Alsace, in eastern France, recalls. "Two days later, I had completely lost my sense of smell."

Like many people affected by the COVID-19 virus, Garde experienced anosmia, also known as "smell blindness." The difference in his case, however, is that the loss of smell and taste had a direct impact on his ability to work. That's because Garde is an oenologist, an expert, in other words, in the science of wine and wine making. And, as it turns out, he's not the only one to have faced this particular predicament.

54% of oenologists affected by COVID-19 had also lost their sense of smell.

A survey, conducted in July 2020 by France's Union of Oenologists, estimated that 54% of oenologists affected by COVID-19 had also lost their sense of smell. And while approximately 70% of them recovered their olfactory sense after 12 days or so, for more than 4% it took several months. Needless to say, anosmia is a real handicap in a profession which has around 7,000 workers in France, with more than half working in wine production.

Nicolas Garde, who lives in the village of Ingersheim, in an area known for its white wines, felt very ill for about five weeks. When he did finally return to work, it was on a part-time basis. He also remembers that at the time, he was still unable to recognize gewurztraminer, a wine with a very characteristic aroma and the specialty of the wine maker that he works for.

vineyard_France_Burgundy

A grape-picker in Burgundy, France. — Photo: Pierre Berthuel/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

"I only smelled the alcohol and a bitterness that doesn't even exist," the oenologist says. "I was totally lost because not only had the aromatic perceptions disappeared, but they were actually distorted."

Complication matters even more that Garde is the winery's only oenologist. How could he prepare the blends or the samples for the customers? His solution was to create a tasting committee with his general manager, the chief cellar master and the sales manager, who each have tasting skills.

"I worked by listening to their suggestions but without the possibility of checking them afterwards," Garde recalls.

"It was a taboo in the profession."

This episode marked the profession and helped mobilize workers. Smell and taste are usually recovered naturally, but training helps speed up the process. And so, each morning and evening, Nicolas Garde forced himself to smell strong aromas: ketchup, herbs, lemon. In the meantime, the Institute of Vine and Wine Science (ISVV) of the University of Bordeaux in southern France, where future oenologists are trained, developed a protocol, available online, to help students recover their sensory faculties.

France's Union of Oenologists has also found that anosmia, which can be caused by various infectious diseases, is common. Its report revealed that 13% of the surveyed oenologists had actually been affected by a loss of smell before the pandemic — two thirds even said it happened to them several times.

"It was a taboo in the profession because an oenologist suffering from anosmia is scared to lose his job," says Sophie Pallas, director general of the Union of Oenologists.

The Union is now working on creating a confidential hotline to help professionals. Looking ahead, the group also wants oenologists to benefit from temporary paid leave. "This is why we would like anosmia to be officially recognized as a disabling condition because when an oenologist is affected, he loses much of his professional abilities," insists Pierre-Louis Teissedre, vice-president of the Union of Oenologists and professor at the ISVV.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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