A world without smells — the delicious as well as the not-so-pleasant — would be a poorer world. Just ask one of the millions who have developed anosmia (loss of smell) after being infected by Covid-19. According to research published in the BMJ last month, about 5 per cent of adults infected by the Coronavirus could develop long-term changes to not just their sense of smell, but also taste, as the two are linked. This means that about 15 million people around the world could have an impaired sense of smell and about 12 million a diminished sense of taste for at least six months after infection.
How drastically different would one’s experience of the world be if one couldn’t, for example, smell hot-off-the-griddle rotis or freshly-brewed coffee or a perfectly ripe mango? There are, of course, the obvious dangers of not being able to smell something like a gas leak or taste food that is rotting. But anosmia and ageusia (inability to taste) can also be mentally devastating because these senses are wired to the brain’s ability to form and retain memories — best captured in Marcel Proust’s famous depiction of a lifetime of recollections being triggered by the taste of a madeleine.
On the face of it, the inability to smell or taste wouldn’t seem as big a deal as, say, the loss of hearing or sight or the absence of a limb. These are losses that are “invisible” until one is afflicted by them, which is why they have always been poorly understood. However, during the last two years, with anosmia and ageusia being important symptoms of Covid-19, the lacuna in medical knowledge is being addressed, with welcome calls for health professionals to pay attention to their psychological devastation.