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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Tastes like cardboard: the long term effects of Covid

The diminished ability to taste, or hypogeusia, impacts our mental health much more than we think. Along with anosmia — the complete or partial loss of smell — it can wreak havoc on one’s perception of food.

Written by Ektaa Malik |
Updated: March 15, 2021 8:53:55 am
An elderly woman waits for her turn to receive COVID-19 vaccine in Mumbai (AP)

There was a certain Pavlovian anticipation to the whole exercise, as I kneaded the dough, mashed boiled potatoes, added chopped coriander and combined everything to a lumpy consistency. It had been a month since I had tested negative for COVID-19, and after a prolonged period of eating khichdi, curd-rice and similar recuperative food, I felt that a stuffed, ghee-laden aloo paratha was a good way to get back on a normal diet. I had contracted COVID-19 in November and experienced the debilitating bodyache and exhaustion that are among the most common symptoms. But it was the loss of my ability to smell and taste that left me reeling. So now, even before I took a bite of my first normal meal in months, my mouth began salivating, anticipating the soft, chewy comfort of the paratha set off against the sourness of the accompanying mango pickle. Instead, as I chewed my first mouthful, it felt like I was eating cardboard.

Frantic online searches and long calls with my doctor revealed that I was suffering from what many call “long COVID”. COVID “long haulers” suffer from exhaustion, brain fog and recurring body pain, frequently accompanied by the impairment of the ability to taste.

For some, the aftereffects of the infection are worse than the infection itself and getting back to life as it was, before the virus wreaked havoc on the body, isn’t easy. Roughly one in three COVID survivors suffers from some such aftereffects, even after the infection period of 15-21 days. As we learn more and more about the virus, it is now believed that “long COVID” lasts three-six months.

The diminished ability to taste, or hypogeusia, doesn’t at first seem as serious as some of the other aftereffects of COVID. But it impacts the brain and our mental health much more than we think. Along with anosmia — the complete or partial loss of smell — it can wreak havoc on one’s perception of food. Every time you cook, or are around your favoured foods, an anticipation builds. But then, the moment you eat, it is replaced by disappointment and, finally, a feeling of emptiness. It’s like playing hide and seek with a mirage.

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For many today, food is not just sustenance. Many of us cook and eat for pleasure, because we can and because we want to. There is a particular sensation or satisfaction that we are looking for, when we eat our favourite foods. For example, comfort food feeds our nostalgia. The simple Sunday lunch of rajma-chawal or the convenient weekday breakfast of idlis might not be culinary breakthroughs but, often, they remind us of simpler times, when we had fewer things to worry about.

The last one year has exposed the fraught and fragile relationship we have with food. Millions struggled to find food or were left hungry by lockdowns around the world. Many, like the stranded migrant workers of India, had to endure extreme hardships to be able to scrape together a single square meal.

Then there were those who began to cook and eat — because they could afford to — as a way of managing stress during an unpredictable time. As the pandemic raged outside, people who were safely at home, including the rich and the famous, could channel their energies towards food. Food, for them, was the perfect escape during these trying times. In fact, given the sheer number of people who had suddenly turned to baking, many stores in Mumbai and Delhi ran out of baking supplies.

COVID-19 drew our attention to another fault line in our relationship with food, by rendering many “long haulers” incapable of smelling or tasting their food. For them, even if they could afford it, the warm comfort of cooking and food remained elusive. This loss of taste is only now being acknowledged as a noteworthy side effect of the virus.

Vaccination drives against the virus have begun and, hopefully, the pandemic will recede without causing more distress.

Meanwhile, in the four months since I tested negative, I haven’t tasted the perfect cup of tea that once made all the difference between a good morning and a bad one. Every day, I deal with the grey scale that my taste buds have reduced my world to. Right now, food is just fuel, one that makes me cringe every time I chew.

This column first appeared in the print edition on March 15, 2021 under the title ‘Taste’s like loss’.

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