We are all deaf during the pandemic

A quieter world, 4 June 2020

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WHEN COVID-19 BEGAN to jump borders in January 2020, I was in Munich on a writing fellowship. Germany’s first few cases were sent to Schwabing Hospital, not far from where I lived and worked. I didn’t think much of it, assuming that it would be contained – but two months later I was on a plane back to Australia, my plans for nine months of prestigious fellowships in Germany, Scotland and the US in ruins. My parents have a holiday house on the northern New South Wales coast where I could quarantine; if I returned to my partner in Brisbane, I ran the risk of infecting him. I decided to stay at the beach until I was clear.

For the first week, unable to get out of bed, I slept. With a sore throat and cold, I thought at first I had the virus – but without a car I couldn’t attend a fever clinic. I phoned a local doctor, who recommended I monitor my symptoms. Over the next few days they subsided, and I realised they’d been a reaction to stress. It had been a nightmare getting home when Qantas cancelled my flight without notification. I pulled an all-nighter to find and catch another flight the next morning. The skin between my fingers cracked from too much hand-washing on the plane. It stung when I poured sanitiser onto it.

In the second week I dragged myself to the kitchen table to meet a deadline. Between paragraphs I took in my limited view. I looked out to the neighbour’s golden rain tree, yellow flowers falling over the fence. I saw a fruiting beehive ginger plant nestled in the long grass, the flower of red overlapping cones striking against its spiky leaves. Slowly, where I was became familiar: not so much the view from the table but a pattern, a way of being in this strange, quiet world. I had, after all, been in isolation for most of my life.

WHEN I WAS four, bacterial meningitis destroyed all the hearing in my left ear and half in my right. I did not have enough hearing left to overhear a conversation, so I had little idea of how to talk with anyone beyond my immediate family. When I did interact, it was hard and tiring. I found it easier to absorb myself in books, because the characters and places were more engaging than those I couldn’t hear in real life. I ignored my longing for other people, even though it surrounded me like dry air waiting for the touch of rain. I worked all the time – writing, researching and thinking – to fill the empty hours.

Now, as I cooked, read books and pushed myself to meet my word count each day, I slotted back into the practice of managing my isolation. Since I was young, I have tried to focus not on yearning for what’s impossible (a hug, an easy face-to-face conversation, a laugh with friends), but rather on what I do have (time to read, write and rest). I curtailed my desire for my partner across the border, which was closed. In any case, I couldn’t reach him because the bus had stopped running and we don’t own a car.

I was surprised by how quickly I adapted to the situation, until I realised that deafness had prepared me for surviving the pandemic.

EVERYONE HAD JUMPED online: Skype, Zoom, GoToMeeting, Teams, FaceTime. At first it was fun: people loved dates with wine, fancy-dress office meetings and jokes about not wearing pants. Then they started to get a bit tired. They had to concentrate harder than usual to work out when to speak. Poor connections distorted the sound. Background noise invaded when people forgot to mute themselves. Articles appeared about Zoom fatigue, caused by an inability to access body language in a virtual space.

I confess to smirking as I read these. For me, every day is an online conversation, with or without a pandemic. Sentences are broken. Loud noises interfere. There’s a lag as I try to decode what someone has said. I am permanently exhausted from the huge amount of processing my brain requires to function in the world.

I, too, resented the COVID-19 sweep to online interaction. I was unable to understand my former colleagues in Munich when we met via Zoom for weekly workshops after I’d returned to Australia, and I had to pay for a captioner. I was cranky with my noisy family on Skype when they forgot I was deaf and spoke too fast and over the top of one another. Yet another part of me relished the tiredness able-bodied people were experiencing in quarantine. Without the pandemic, they would never understand what it’s like to be deaf. Now there was a chance they would.

IN THE THIRD week I was released from my confinement. I left my inside-out view, blinkered by the verandah doors, of the raintree, ginger plant and patch of overgrown lawn. I walked up a steep hill, passing driveways, garden beds, mailboxes. There were few cars, and while I liked the empty streets, they were also unnerving.

I crossed a bridge over a clear creek where small stingrays swam. The creek was fringed by mangroves, their roots exposed by low tide. The rich, dank smell of the mud reached my nose. When I saw the sea, a dark line against the horizon, my body filled with light.

If a person loses one sense, their other senses compensate to make up the shortfall. My senses of smell and touch are acute, and I pay heightened attention to visual cues: birds, the shape of lips, the slant of afternoon shadows. As people came out of isolation, the world rushed at their senses, the way it has always rushed at mine.

On the beach, sand crusted my feet. The waves, still warm from summer, fizzed against my calves. Large black butterflies rode the breezes, dipping to the water to sip salt. I watched dogs galumphing for balls or waiting at the shore for their owners to return from a swim.

At the shops I marked my distance from people. This caution comes from my childhood; I would keep to myself until I knew I could trust someone not to laugh at me for mishearing and mispronunciations. Deafness, which had long exposed me to dangers – cars I couldn’t hear, men with ill intent following me home – now kept me safe. Disability is not, as is commonly assumed, a condition of loss; rather, it has benefits that are unexpected and unique.

OUR WORLD HAS quietened, folded in on itself. Planes have stopped flying overhead, penguins waddle down empty pavements, sediment in rivers settles without the disturbance of boats, showing us what happens when we stop rushing. We have lost much: loved ones, the ease of travel, secure jobs and futures.

We have also gained something that couldn’t be grasped in the frenzy of pre-pandemic consumption: a condition of stillness and watchfulness. As the world awakens, will we remember the hush and strain of our deafness during the pandemic?

4 June 2020

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

The piece was originally commissioned for the anthology Our Inside Voices: Reflections on COVID-19, a collection of short stories and poetry by Queensland writers published by AndAlso Books and Paradigm Print Media.

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