What does a pandemic sound like? For many at home, it’s a heartbreaking silence

THE WASHINGTON POST – In India, the incessant beep-beep of cars has disappeared. In New York, Harlem’s heart has stopped beating. In the suburbs of Detroit, the chatter of neighbours is muffled. In Toronto, the trains no longer whistle, and in Marseille, every day sounds like a holiday.

All around the world, the silence rolls in and out like fog. It hangs in the air – there but not there. Impenetrable and fragile, weightless and smothering.

It’s periodically disrupted – by the shriek of an ambulance siren, the rattle of a construction truck or the evening applause for first responders. For those lucky enough to work from their home, FaceTime and Zoom keep the afternoon buzzing with a new familiarity. But eventually, the silence comes.

We are deep in the horror and kicking our way to the surface. What does a pandemic sound like? Emptiness.

In March, Faith Heyison was in the thick of her professional duties – working with fashion designers behind the scenes in their showrooms and on their runway productions. Heyison was in her glory: the chaotic, exhausting whirl of creativity on a global scale. Her work regularly takes her to New York and Paris, and by the time she returns to Monsempron-Libos, the small town in southwestern France where she lives, she usually welcomes the peace and quiet that greet her.

A woman walks outside of Kingman Park in Washington. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
An apartment building in Washington, DC, where nightlife has gone away; and there are spasms of silence in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood of Washington, DC.

But now the silence is not so much a well-earned gift as a voracious monster that has snuffed out the reassuring rumble and roar of daily life.

The saying goes, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” But sometimes in this age of COVID-19, it seems that the sweet cacophony in our dreams is what soothes us, not the silence of our waking hours.

“I live alone. I am not permitted to visit neighbours or friends. I am not permitted to be somewhere other than my primary residence. I cannot take one of the few available trains to a coastal town. Everything would be closed anyway, including hotels. I cannot escape by means of an airplane to another country,” Heyison said in an email. “Even if I could, all I would find would be more silence.”

“Sleep is actually a welcome respite because in my dreams, it’s noisy,” she says. “I talk to people I know. I talk to people I never met. I am in places I know. I am in places I have never been. Sleep is the easy part. It’s waking up that is harder.”

Just past midnight, as Saturday blurs into Sunday, a walk sign on H Street NE in the nation’s capital glows white but there are no footfalls. The only sound on the empty sidewalk is the electronic bloop, bloop, bloop of the traffic signal counting down the seconds before … no one moves and the hush only deepens. No cars rumble through the intersection. The city’s inglorious streetcar, on its newly shortened schedule, stopped running hours ago and so there’s no impudent clanging of its horn, no squeal of its metal wheels on its track.

The late-night urban soundscape has become little more than digital chirps and the occasional guttural outburst from the lost soul wrapped in a vagabond’s blanket.

By Sunday’s light, H Street is free of the usual detritus that comes from the crowds of late-night diners and music lovers. Silence is litter-free.

Some people find the quiet calming. They feel closer to their faith. They give in to the stillness and consider their destiny. They have a silver-lining attitude: The air is cleaner; crime rates have dropped; school shootings ceased in the United States. If you tilt your head and squint, the quieting of the world can be seen as a gift.

But when we, the agitated, try to breathe deeply and locate our spiritual center, it’s elusive.

“I keep thinking, ‘This is great, I’ll just sit here and simply be.’ But then my mind freaks out and it starts racing and then I’m like ‘Ahh, must make some noise,’” says Sara Ngwenya, who lives in Nottingham, England. “There’s too much reality that’s hidden in those pockets of silence, and I’m not sure I can handle it at the moment.”

The silence isn’t a respite; it’s relentless. It’s no longer the absence of sound; it is the sound.

“I’m kind of an introvert; I need to retreat,” said LaTasha Simmons, a nail technician who worked in Brooklyn – back when there was noise – and lives on Long Island. “This is forced silence instead of silence that you’re creating for yourself.” Instead of looking to it as a tonic to recharge from a hectic day, there’s no hurly-burly from which to withdraw. We don’t wind down because we never wound up.

What day is it? Sound is an aural calendar: the whoosh of weekday rush-hour traffic, the hoots of the Friday night bar brigade, the slam of shared bicycles into their electronic docks on a Saturday afternoon full of errands.

“Since the lockdown began, every day feels like a Sunday. You wake up, and you hear … nothing,” said Nicolas Icard, a 23-year-old communications student in isolation with his parents in Marseille, France. “I think people are divided between the calm that they might be experiencing in their lives and the fear of what will happen next.”

Instead of silence being part of the natural rhythm of life, life has flatlined. And the thought of resuscitating our beloved with a jolt is terrifying. In Florida and Georgia, the chattering crowds on beaches, the buzz of barbershop clippers, the zap-zap of tattoo needles aren’t noises of life; they’re a tolling of the bells.

The silence really can be deafening. When a normally high-volume city is abruptly put on mute, our brain is hypersensitive to the shift. What we’ve experienced is akin to leaving a loud concert and stepping into the hush of the night. The silence registers intensely. It’s almost suffocating.

“It definitely leaves you alone in your head,” Simmons said. And for many of us, our head is filled with what-ifs and worst-case scenarios. “I need a little bit of noise to drown out the silence.”

The quiet shouldn’t be confused with loneliness, which is a mental state. And it’s not synonymous with solitude, although there are points of overlap, like in a Venn diagram, said Thuy-vy Nguyen, an assistant professor at Durham University who researches solitude and resiliency.

Solitude – or alone time – can be filled with moments of silence, but it can also be rich with music. And anyone who’s ever had an argument with a roommate knows it’s possible to have silence – or to get the silent treatment – when solitude would be much preferred.

Still, one wonders whether the discomfort with silence is exacerbated by solitude. Or can silence cause loneliness? Perhaps the brewing uneasiness is just the desire to hear someone say: You are loved. You are valued.

Nguyen began researching solitude long before the pandemic. She was especially focussed on how older people respond to it. She and her colleagues were hampered by the amount of enforced alone time a subject could ethically be asked to endure. The pandemic has removed that hurdle.

Nguyen has learned that as long as subjects know that they have value to someone beyond their four walls, even if they didn’t have the ability to connect with that person, they could stave off loneliness.