Coronavirus

Sonic COVID: Listening To The Pandemic's Sounds And Silences

Particularly in mega cities like New Delhi, the pandemic and its accompanying lockdowns have changed our audible environment. What does that tell us about where we're heading?

People walking in Delhi, India
People walking in Delhi, India
Feza Tabassum Azmi*

-Essay-

NEW DELHI — For the last 10 years or more, our mornings have been synonymous with the sonorous horn of the school van that would come to pick up our kids for school. With schools closed ever since the pandemic happened, mornings are devoid of the hurly-burly of kids getting ready and packing off to school. The long, clarion honk was a metaphor for all that a school embodies – punctuality, discipline, orderliness. It had the undisputable power to transport kids onto an entirely different kaleidoscope – the excitement of meeting school friends and a certain natural tendency to start behaving in typical school mannerisms.

That clarion call is being missed. Children across most parts of the world are yearning to be back to school – listening to more familiar sounds of the school bell, the rhapsody of the assembly choir, the laughter in the corridors, the rotund chorus of "good morning teacher" and much more.

The pandemic has changed our sonic environment. The ubiquitous sounds of life seem to have almost vanished. The vegetable vendor with his undecipherable call-outs of vegetable names, the street hawker's rustic marketing jingle, the occasional kabadi wala's high-pitched bawl, the innocuous gibberish of the tea-seller near the lane, the lyrical prayer of the beggar – all seem to have disappeared. One wonders how daily earners like them are managing their way through the pandemic.

The ubiquitous sounds of life seem to have almost vanished.

The ear-splitting honks of vehicles, jarring traffic snarls, wayward two-wheelers and the swarms of e-rickshaws with blaring Bollywood songs became rare, almost extinct. Sound of people in streets and markets faded into obscurity, the cheerful laughter and giggles of children in neighborhood parks got replaced with silence and anxiety. Announcements and loudspeakers on roads were quietened. The occasional roar of the airplane in the sky, the distant train whistle, the ringing of the ice-cream trolley, a firecracker somewhere – the little joys of humdrum life were gone. Call bells at home were not ringing. There were no visitors.

It took a pandemic for us to appreciate these everyday sounds. We almost started missing the screeching vegetable sellers and the traffic cacophony. Our daily soundscape changed after the pandemic. While many routine sounds were gone, the pandemic introduced us to new acoustic elements. Muffled voices behind masks from a calculated distance was the new conversation protocol. Sneezes, coughs, gargles, inhalers, nebulizers became familiar background scores. On one occasion, there was this sound of banging of plates from certain parts of the planet.

An upscale shopping area in central New Delhi, India — Photo: Sondeep Shankar

For most part, the pandemic became associated with stentorian ambulance sirens tearing through the night. Howling dogs and growling cats bemoaned the passing by of ambulances, in ominous cries. The noise inside hospitals became louder, the wails and sobs more painful. Beeping monitors, blipping electronic signals, ringing alarms, whirring oxygen pipelines, wheezing ventilators, humming X-rays, buzzing CT scan machines, dripping IV lines amidst frenzied movement of staff amplified the agony of hospitals. This was sometimes intercepted with a resounding clap or musical appreciation for a recovering patient or a selfless doctor.

There are sounds of cries and pain on TV. Gory visuals of hospitals, distressed patients and desperate family members became prime time news. There were louder sounds of journalists and news anchors as they uncovered story after story. High decibel inconsequential debates on the "whats' and "whys' of lockdown measures invaded our living rooms.

The internet was the elixir of the pandemic. It kept people busy and enabled uninterrupted learning and work. It kept organizations alive and employees earnings secure. The sound of Zoom calls, online meetings, videoconferencing sessions gave a semblance of continuity of life. Beeps, notifications, unmuted microphones, chats and pings provided some respite from an otherwise traumatic reality. The repetitive "Can you hear me" and "Am I audible" were the new work lingo. Phone calls and WhatsApp messages became more frequent. Music, videos, streaming media were the regular sounds at home.

Amidst all these phonetics, the sound of an eerie silence symbolized the pandemic. With traffic halted, factories closed and construction work stopped, sounds of activity receded. The buzzing sounds of existence got replaced by an unknown hush. Silence took over the aural conscience of individuals. We love our bustling roads, parks, markets, malls and city centers. Cities thrive on that chaos and din. Economies prosper on that noise – the noise of trade, sales and commerce. The sudden silence was deafening. The quiet is perhaps not always comforting.

The only solace is the birdsong. There seem to be more birds chirping and singing. Lockdown silence has reinvigorated nature. Social media is abuzz with stories of people hearing new birdsongs and animal sounds. The breeze is cooler, fresher as if flowing in musical notes.

A young worker operates a lathe machine at Anand Parbat Industrial Area, India — Photo: Pradeep Gaur

Forbes magazine reported that lockdowns resulted in a significant drop in noise pollution. Seismologists are reporting less seismic noise and vibrations. Even oceans were found to be more tranquil and ambient with ships and cruises temporarily suspended. Several reports from across the world testified to this.

The lockdown has produced a new sonic ecosystem, engendering never-before kind of aural experiences.

The lockdown has produced a new sonic ecosystem, engendering never-before kind of aural experiences. The pandemic triggered research on sound environments and behaviors. Enthused researchers were exploring the sonic idiosyncrasies of the pandemic: Has the lockdown transformed the distinctive sounds of our cities? How is routine "noise" different? Are sonic peculiarities surfacing? What kinds of emotional response is it generating? Will it have long-lasting effects on listening habits?

Cities and Memory, a global collaborative field recording and sound art work, created a sound map of the pandemic by remixing noises from across the globe. There were others who were trying to record and preserve the temporary sounds of lockdown for the future. Some were exploring which noises characterize a place and which emotions they evoke. The sounds of the pandemic generated much interest from scientists and acousticians.

It is said that every place has a soundtrack symbolized by its life. These routine sounds – good or bad – give a feeling of normalcy. Listening is a fundamental sensory act. It is important to our understanding of our surrounding. Sound is vital to life. It provides a rhythm to our existence. The sounds of our mornings, evenings and night-time shape our life experiences. We do not know when the pandemic will end, what we certainly know is we don't want to listen to the sad song of the pandemic again.



*Feza Tabassum Azmi works at the Faculty of Management Studies and Research, Aligarh Muslim University and has authored Strategic Human Resource Management.

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Geopolitics

Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung

-Analysis-

BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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