The smell of Covid-19: notes from Berlin during the lockdown

Shortly before the beginning of the Coronavirus lockdowns, I embarked on a new project on the social and cultural configurations of smell. While originally, I planned to focus on perfuming and deodorising in relation to cultural notions of beauty, what came to the fore in both my everyday life and the scholarly literature that I read, was the smell of hygiene –subsequently giving rise to a new research focus and the name of this blog. In this post, I would like to assemble a few research notes and observations on smell in coronatimes and my changing smellscape, living in Berlin during the Covid-19 lockdown. Does the pandemic smell, and how? What are the olfactorial shifts that I noted? In writing about these things, I also grapple with another question, perhaps the most difficult of all, namely, how to write about and record smell and odours?

Smell is ephemeral and cannot be recorded like sound or vision. Moreover, the language we have to describe smell is rather poor. Reading on the role of smell and odours in medical history and history more generally, as I currently do, I cannot help but think that over the past century or two our capability to detect and articulate odours has become even poorer. Not least, I’m certainly not ‘a nose’ (un nez in French), as they say in the French perfumery industry studied by Bruno Latour for an article published in 2004. That is, like most of us, I’ve never been systematically trained and educated in detecting, articulating or creating odours and scents respectively.

One of the first things that come to my mind when thinking about the relation between smell and Covid-19 is the relation between smell and the virus itself. Thus, a loss or a changed sense of smell is one of the effects of the coronavirus, as noted by the World Health Organisation. Rather late, on May 18, the British NHS officially added the loss or changed sense of smell to its list of coronavirus symptoms. Here, the loss of smell is described as ‘unpleasant,’ though usually ‘not serious;’ nevertheless, the experiences of those suffering from this loss, called anosmia, speak of a serious irritation. The olfactorial power of the virus, however, is twofold: what is less widely known is that the virus also produces a particular kind of smell. While this smell is undetectable for humans, even ‘the noses’ described by Latour, in the past few weeks, dogs trained by researchers at the University of Helsinki have succeeded in sniffing out Covid-19 patients by distinguishing between different urine samples.

Blossoming cherry tree along the canal in Treptow donated from Japan in 1990 (photo: C. Liebelt)

Moreover, there are changes in the urban smellscape that are related to the Covid-19 shutdown rather than the virus itself. No longer taking the subway to the university or squeezing into the bus to take my daughter to school in the mornings, my personal everyday smellscape has certainly changed quite dramatically in the past few months. Staying at home most days and keeping physical distance while shopping, I’m hardly ever confronted with the bodily smells of others from close up. Moreover, in the first few weeks, with traffic in the neighbourhood coming almost to a standstill, there was an incredible improvement in the air quality that could not only be heard, but also smelled. Thus, I wonder whether the dramatic change in the urban soundscape during the shutdown –chirping birds, rather than traffic– contributed to a general intensification of attentiveness and sensorial experiences such as the olfactorial, reported by many of my interlocutors and experienced myself?

The period of shutdowns also coincided with the arrival of spring in Berlin and during April and May, intensive musky and floral scents were carried through the air. Not far from where I live, the 45 cherry trees planted in 1990 along the former border between East and West Berlin by a Japanese TV channel as part of the so-called Sakura Campaign to mark the reunification of Germany started blossoming and I walked there almost daily to indulge in this visual and olfactorial spectacle.

Unbranded hand sanitizer in a restaurant in Berlin-Charlottenburg in mid-May (photo: C. Liebelt)

A novel smell that came to dominate the smellscape of our apartment building and indeed, of many public and commercial buildings, is the smell of cleaning and sanitizing agents. In mid-March, in the beginning of the lockdown in Berlin, one of our neighbours used an extensive amount of sanitizing agent to disinfect the staircase and door knobs. Its acid smell continued to waft in the building for days. In the weeks that followed, I heard and smelled a lot of cleaning going on in our neighbours’ apartments. Similar to what has been reported for the epidemics of the 19th and 20th century (as described, for example, in Corbin’s masterful The Foul and the Fragrant) in confronting the pandemic, many of our neighbours obviously resorted to purifying and deodorizing their private spaces.

Newly discovered imported tobacco-scented Eau de Cologne from our Turkish corner shop (photo: C. Liebelt)

Now was the time to take stock of the hand sanitizers that we had at home: there was one in the car, an antiseptic in the bathroom, a couple of Sagrotan® cloths in the medicine cabinet.. To my taste, they all smelled rather horrid. I wondered, will their olfactorial attack on my nose affect my ability to smell? While ‘medical’ disinfectants were sold out almost everywhere, they nevertheless became ubiquitous, especially in their acrid olfactorial presence. Friends, who had rarely ever used hand sanitizers before, now carried them along in their handbags and increasingly used them. Many Turkish friends used traditional Eau de Cologne, rediscovered in Turkey as hand sanitizer due to its high alcohol content. Even my partner acquired a tobacco-scented Eau de Cologne, the classical kolonya used during his teenage years in Istanbul, from our Turkish corner shop. Another friend, whom I met for occasional walks around the block, used lemon-scented spectacle cloths to sanitise her hands. After mid-May, cafés and restaurants, offices, museums, libraries and even swimming pools and sport and fitness clubs reopened, given their so-called ‘hygiene plans’ had been approved by the municipality. Hand sanitizers for employees and customers/ visitors formed an important part of these. Again, I noted that many Turkish-owned cafés and restaurants use scented kolonya instead of ‘medical’ hand sanitizers, creating a different olfactorial atmosphere altogether.

Hand sanitizer offered at the entrance of the municipal library in Berlin-Neukölln; the sign reads ‘Please disinfect your hands’ (photo: C. Liebelt)

Now that we enter month four of the Covid-19 lockdown in Berlin, things are slowly returning to a fragile and different kind of normal everyday life. Cars and buses are back in the streets and with them, traffic emissions and exhaust smell. However, the smell of cleaning and sanitizing agents, I suppose, will stay with us for quite another while.

Celebrating the Feast of Sweet Smells and Tastes during Corona times

From 23–24 May, Muslims all over the world celebrated Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of four weeks of fasting during the month of Ramadan. In Turkey and the Turkish Muslim diaspora, the holiday is commonly known as Ramazan Bayramı or Şeker Bayramı, the “Feast of Sweets,” due to the fact that upon visiting relatives, friends and neighbours, one is awarded candy, chocolates and other traditional sweets such as Turkish Delight.

While I was able to observe the holiday preparations and visits of neighbouring families in Berlin-Neukölln where I live, a district well-known for its large Turkish diaspora community, I had to resort to virtual ethnography to get a sense of how this year’s holiday was celebrated in Turkey. I am especially interested in the changed role of Eau de Cologne and scents during the holiday. Thus, during bayram, visitors are not only awarded candy, but also –in a traditional gesture of welcome and as a sign of hospitality– Eau de Cologne, called kolonya in Turkish. Its use certainly did change in the past few weeks, as is confirmed by countless twitter postings under the hashtag of #kolonya in recent weeks. As one user, Mine Karakoç expresses on twitter on the evening of the holiday, ‘This holiday, kolonya has a different meaning!’

Due to its disinfectant effect, alcohol-based kolonya has recently assumed the role of a staple in everyday life and subsequently, local demand and prices have been skyrocketing. At the same time, for most people in Turkey, the holiday more generally was celebrated quite differently this year: whereas the Turkish government has so far refrained from stringent Covid-19 lockdowns but resorted to weekend curfews in some provinces as well as movement restriction orders for children and the elderly, shortly before the holiday, it announced a strict and nationwide four-day lockdown.

Buying Eau de Cologne for Eid al-Fitr this year (screenshot from a youtube posting)

In preparation of the feast this year, families obviously still went shopping for candies and Eau de Cologne. However, as this youtube video posting of an urban middle class family shows, the shopping was done with rubber gloves and masks. Left alone at home due to the Covid-19 regulations, the couple’s daughter nevertheless directs her parents’ buying decisions via WhatsApp. Filming his tour through the supermarket with his smart phone, the father disappointedly exclaims: ‘I would have loved to get some nice scents for the holiday, but there’s nothing left. Should we get some lemon kolonya, then? The daughter, via the mother’s smart phone, agrees and he picks one for 14 TL.

Many bayram postings on twitter invoked the celebrations of former times, such as a user named Bihter Fidangül, who posted a Turkish state television spot from 1988 wondering ‘where have the old bayram celebrations gone?’ The spot features holiday greetings from a number of Turkish celebrities as well as a typical bayram scene, with younger family members ritually greeting older relatives by kissing their extended hands and touching their forehead as well as a female host offering candies to a group of seated guests.

In the weeks before the holiday, many producers of fragrances and scents launched advertisements that directly refered to the Covid-19 related changes. For example, the video commercial for Selin Limon Kolonyası, a lemon-scented Eau de Cologne produced by a family firm in Izmir, states:

‘This holiday, in our Eau de Cologne, there’s not only your beloved smell of lemon. This holiday, it also includes the smell of your beloved grandparents and great grandparents, who you cannot go to visit. It also includes the smell of the feast table. It also includes the smell of sweets from your homeland [memleket], where you cannot go. This holiday, our Eau de Cologne includes the scents of our loved ones, the ones we miss and the ones we wait for as well as of upcoming beautiful days. Selin Eau de Cologne wishes a happy holiday to all of Turkey!’

One of many postings on twitter this Eid al-Fitr, combining the seasonal greetings with a picture of bottled Eau de Cologne.

Like many others, journalist Ercan Küçük posts his holiday greetings on twitter (on 24 May 2020, 3:39 pm) alongside a picture of his personal kolonya assortment. Among the 14 bottles of all kinds of styles and sizes sitting on a beige sofa, there are the usual scents, such as lemon, rose and olive flowers, as well as one that I’ve never seen before: hamsi kolonyası, an anchovy-scented Eau de Cologne, produced in the Black Sea town of Trabzon. I wonder what it smells like? Was this part of a panic buying as they have been reported for Turkey in March, or is this rather the effect of missing one’s home region (the Black Sea region is famous for its delicious anchovy dishes)?

Finally, I come across a youtube video of a team of the Turkish Red Crescent, walking through the emptied town of Hakkari, on the Turkish Iraqi border, on a rainy day, offering drops of Eau de Cologne and candy to those they meet outside, mostly soldiers and policemen. These images of colourful candy and Eau de Cologne in an atmosphere of ghostly tristesse and melancholy linger on.

Buying hand sanitizer in my local pharmacy

In mid-May, I enter my local pharmacy in Berlin-Neukölln to buy hand sanitizer. Right next to the cashier a handwritten sign announces the sale of hand sanitizers: 100 ml for 5 EUR, 200 ml for 10 EUR. I ask for a small bottle, telling the pharmacist that hand sanitizers are still unavailable at dm, a large drugstore chain in Germany. The pharmacist tells me that I shouldn’t rely on the hand sanitizer offered there, because they are merely bactericidal, not virucidal. It simply doesn’t affect the coronavirus. In contrast, their hand sanitizer is based on the recommendation of the WHO. I ask about the ingredients and he explains that it is basically alcohol mixed with water; they used propanol to reduce skin dehydration. He explains that in order to be effective and similar to hand-washing, hand sanitizer has to be rubbed until completely absorbed, for about thirty seconds.

I ask when they started producing hand sanitizers? He explains that they used to produce hand sanitizers, but a couple of years ago, due to a change in regulations, were no longer allowed to do so. On March 4, the Federal Office for Chemicals issued a new decree in reaction to the spread of Covid-19, which allowed pharmacies to produce their own hand sanitizers once more. Ever since, this decree has been updated several times and most recently also includes the right to produce surface sanitizers.

In early March, he recounts, they hardly managed to produce and bottle sanitizers in sufficient numbers and even alcohol was increasingly difficult to come by. Indeed, in mid-March, the business magazine Capital reported that breweries and cosmetic firms world-wide started producing hand sanitizers to help ease the shortage.

Throughout March, my local pharmacy sold four items almost exclusively, the pharmacist tells me: Paracetamol, hand sanitizers, gloves, and facial masks. Now things are returning back to normal, the pharmacist says.

Their hand sanitizer comes in a plain white plastic bottle with a printed label on it. The production and expiry dates are hand written: according to the label, mine was produced on April 29, 2020 and is best before April 29, 2021. It has an acrid smell to it.

Hand Sanitizers at the University – A Scarce Good

In late April, the president of the University of Bayreuth (in the southern German Free State of Bavaria) sends out an email with the latest Infection Protection Act. In paragraph 7, the universities are asked to guarantee sufficient possibilities for hand washing and sanitizing in their facilities. However, the president writes that the sufficient provision with sanitizer dispensers is a difficult task at the moment due to “the current market situation” and that it will take a few more weeks until the problem will be solved.  

Curious to find out more, I get in touch with the responsible persons at the university’s Department for Acquisition and Inventory Management  and they confirm that they’ve never seen anything like what’s currently happening on the sanitizer market. Lately, many products have simply become unavailable.  

In the current Covid-19 pandemic, hand sanitizer dispensers have become a scarce good © picture alliance/dpa/Daniel Karmann

By the end of February, when the Covid-19 epidemic came increasingly closer, the university ordered 40 dispensers. In early March, they attempted to order additional dispensers, as well as refilling bags, but the provider was even back then unable to provide any and couldn’t quote a delivery date. There are enough supplies of disinfectant agents, which are used for cleaning surfaces at the university, but due to state regulations, these may not be used as hand sanitizers.

Instead, different kinds of hand sanitizer products have been ordered from other firms to refill the available dispensers. These hand sanitizers are based on alcohol and one on chlorine, provided by a firm specialized on the purification of water. When I ask the person responsible for ordering the products about their smell, she laughingly responds that she never even gave a thought to this! In the product data sheets the smells are described as alcoholic and chlorine respectively…

In the meanwhile, the in-house technicians are busy installing the precious forty dispensers where they are most urgently needed. While at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis dispensers were installed more generally across the campus, lately many have been removed and installed in newly reopened facilities.