Speak Softly-- keep Covid 19 at bay

By Vijaya Pushkarna

Whispering is generally about sweet nothings  that are romantic; gossip that is interesting but not necessarily relevant or true; and the game called Chinese whisper-- a game in which a statement gets distorted as each player whispers it into the ears of another.

Covid 19 , originated in China , now requires us  to whisper---well almost whisper—whether or not it is romantic, gossip or not a game.

One of the important tools  we need to succeed in our battle against the novel corona virus, is to lower our volume, and speak softly, very softly.

The  nation-wide lockdown that began on March25 was used as much to ramp up our health facilities for Covid patients as to educate people on how to fight it at an individual and community level. Every Indian knows the importance of  hand washing, wearing a mask, social distancing and staying at home. But there is a crucial message the government has failed to convey, or at best, whispered. And that is to speak softly.

Whether we are speaking, or listening to a song, speech or news, we tend to keep our volume on high. “Loud talking has even been shown to generate measurably more droplets than quieter talking” comments Dr Atul Gawande, as he explains the reasons for the six-feet social distance—or “do gaz doori” as prime minister Narendra Modi put it.  Dr Gawande is a professor at the Harvard Medical School and author of best sellers  including  “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” and“The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right”.

 The distancing is important because covid-19, spreads primarily through respiratory droplets emitted by infected people when they cough, sneeze, talk, or simply exhale; the droplets are then breathed in by others.

To start with, it  was believed that the microscopic droplets exhaled by people __pre -symptomatic, asymptomatic or symptomatic –settle down on a surface and not stay or float in the air. Till NHK, the  Japanese version of our Doordarshan, in collaboration with a research body, captured the movement of microdroplets emitted every time we talk. They  found that the louder we talk, the more are the microdroplets emitted, and they floated in the air and drifted about.

Similar was the finding of a research conducted by the scientists of the University of Pennsylvania and the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive, and Kidney Diseases.

“Microdroplets carry many viruses,” says Kazuhiro Tateda, head of the Japanese Association for Infectious Diseases. “We produce them when we talk loudly or breathe heavily. People around us inhale them and that’s how the virus spreads. We’re beginning to see this risk now.”

They also showed that a two-way ventilation helped, as did social distancing and wearing a mask. But the most important take away from that study was about the volume of our conversation.

It is apparently not just about talking. Dr Gawande gave another example. “Take, for instance, the now infamous Skagit Valley Chorale practice, on March 10th, at a church in Washington State. It was pre-lockdown, but there’d been enough coronavirus news to lead the group to suspend the usual hugs and handshakes and to sit farther apart than usual. According to choir members who were present, no one seemed ill at the start of the rehearsal. No one coughed. The singing was as powerful as ever. And that may have been the problem. There was an index patient who had been experiencing cold-like symptoms for three days, which worsened after the rehearsal and led to a diagnosis of covid-19. According to an investigation by the Skagit County Public Health department, fifty-two of the sixty other choir members in attendance subsequently fell ill. Thirty-two choir members tested positive for covid-19. Two died.”

At once it appears as if  you can scream your lungs out if it is over Skype or FaceTime or WhatsApp , Zoom or any similar app, where the person you are talking to is far, far away! But the microdroplets floating in the room after you are through, and remaining there for as long as they do, can affect those who come to that space even after the conversation has ended!


  1. Very well written piece. I had heard Dr Gawande's interview on India Today but the church singing was new info for me. I liked the references to Chinese whispers. It fitted in aptly.


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