Quarantine in Siberia: An interview with Corinne Doria

Professor Corinne Doria is a historian at the University of Tyumen specialising in the history of medicine, science and technology, and in histories of political ideas. She answered interview questions for our blog on the sensory experience of quarantine during Covid-19, which took the form of 2 weeks in quarantine at a sanatorium and 6 weeks in a flat in semi-quarantine (with permission to leave only for groceries).

Hello Corinne, thank you so much for this interview. Can you please start by telling us where you experienced your quarantine(s)? I live in Tyumen, a city in South-West Siberia. Here, the lockdown begun in early April and lasted till the beginning of June. I experienced the quarantine in two different spaces: my apartment and a sanatorium where me and my colleagues were brought after two cases of  COVID-19 were discovered in March at the university where I work.

What is your overriding sensory memory of the quarantine? I can mention one preponderant sensory memory for each place. In my apartment, the image of the empty streets I could see from my windows. Even in the peak of the winter there are people moving around the city, and in springtime usually the street are animated till late in the evening. I had the feeling of staring at a De Chirico’s painting depicting  unnaturally void urban landscapes. It was an ambivalent spectacle, peaceful and troubling at the same time. In the sanatorium, my prevalent sensory memory is probably the “smellscape” of my room and how it changed throughout the day. Early in the morning, when the nurse brought in breakfast, the air was filled with the smell of coffee; then, when I took the shower, it was perfume of the shower gel and shampoo permeating the air; around 11 a. m., came the cleaning ladies, spreading in the room the smell sanitiser; the smell of food infused the air at 1 p.m. and at 6 p.m.; and the perfume of a different kind of shower gel and shampoo was the prevalent smell when my roommate used the bathroom before bed. Our room was pretty small (twenty square meters) and we couldn’t keep the window open for a long time (March in Siberia is still quite cold). So, even if we had an air purifier, the odours stagnated. In a way, it was reassuring because we could have the certainty not having Corona!

How did your sensory / spatial experience of quarantine interact with your emotions? I experienced a precise range of strong emotions during the quarantine. After I was brought to the sanatorium, rage and impotent fury were the predominant feelings for the first couple of days. I felt like I was the victim of an illicit restriction of my freedom and considered the regional government’s decision to keep us in isolation just because of two cases of Corona amongst my colleagues disproportionate. I didn’t want to fight these feelings – in spite of people telling me to “think positive”, be reasonable and consider the viewpoint of the medical authorities. I thought I was perfectly in the right to feel angry and I didn’t want to inhibit these emotions. After a few days, these emotions started fading away, replaced by a sort of calm resignation. When it became clear that there was nothing I could do to change the situation, I started to adapt to the new environment. I was surprised how quickly I got used to that confined space. Calm and relaxation remained the predominant feelings of the rest of my stay in the sanatorium. I put my energy on what I had the possibility to act upon and began making that space mine. 

Did the passing of time shape your sensory / spatial experience of quarantine (or vice versa)? I would say that I developed a more acute perception of the space because of the quarantine. As I said, after the initial anger, I became accustomed to living in a limited space. I recall that when I left the sanatorium and took a cab to the city, I felt almost overwhelmed by the perception of the extent of the birch forest that I was traversing. When finally I arrived at my apartment, I found myself stepping in every room and staying for a few minutes in each of them, just appreciating that familiar and comfortable environment. I guess that this experience has made me aware of the impact that the environment we live in has on our emotions and behaviour, whether we want it or not.

How did the spatial/sensory experience of quarantine affect your human relationships (within and beyond its walls)? During those two weeks I realized the importance of human proximity. I found having someone with whom to share the quarantine was very beneficial for the mood and helped me a lot during the two weeks I spent there. I lived for a long time in shared flats and so did the colleague I shared the sanatorium room with.  We both knew that the key to get along with people you live with is to define a set of rules everybody agrees on. We almost spontaneously established a daily routine: in the morning,  yoga, breakfast, work (we took advantage of not having classes to get some writing done); then lunch followed by a nap (yes!), and another work session; around 5 pm, workout with YouTube fitness videos, dinner, reading a book or watching a movie before bed. I think that my roommate and I made an unconscious effort to avoid every potential source of tension because we knew that it would have added a great load of stress to an already hectic situation. In that sense, I feel like the quarantine paradoxically helped me to develop social skills!  The lockdown also really made me aware of the “social nature” of human beings. I’d say that in particular I have become aware of how social interaction is a multi-sensory activity. When I called my friends and family over WhatsApp or Zoom it was like I was having 50% of a proper social experience. Physical proximity engages the human senses in a very different way, even with no physical contact. You “feel” the person you are talking to, you share the same environment with her, hear the same sounds and noises, breath the same air. All this sensorial part was missing during the lockdown. When restrictions started to be lifted and it was again possible to meet in small gathering, I recall I felt a rush of endorphins just walking around a park with a couple of friends. This was my biology talking, and telling me that we are social animals!

What did you miss most from the ‘outside world’ during quarantine? Besides human contact and ‘in-person’ sociability, something I missed very much was the ability to separate working and living space. Even if I live in a big apartment, the fact of my flat being at the same time place where I delivered my (Zoom) classes and the place where I ate and slept was stressful. I started feeling more tired than how – to me – I was supposed to feel (I wasn’t going outside except to do my groceries once a week!), and less productive than what I thought I would be. It was psychological fatigue. When the lockdown began, a quite widespread reflex amongst people in academia has been “I will be able to get a lot of stuff done during the lockdown” but quickly people have become aware that it was just not the case. Isolation does not provide the optimal conditions for working, at least not in the long term.     

How did you try to (re)connect with the outside world? For example, the internet, imagination, memory, visualisation? Internet has been a precious help to get through the quarantine. I would say that during the lockdown it has my primary connection to the outside world.  I started using more than the usual platforms, like WhatsApp and Skype, and using some new ones, like Zoom or Telegram. Virtual contact was my only way I could continue engaging with the outside world, and I had to multiply the possibility of continuing reaching my friends, family and colleagues. But to be fair I haven’t noticed a dramatic shift my use of the internet. I left my home country (Italy) ten years ago and since then I have been working in five different countries, and visited way more for conferences and research related activities.  I have friends and colleagues from around the world and to stay in contact with them internet is the only way. My use of the internet to get access to news or movies also remained pretty consistent during the quarantine. When I moved to Siberia I couldn’t speak Russian and I had to rely almost exclusively to the web as a source of information and leisure. The lockdown exacerbated this situation but was not a radical shift. In a way, I was already trained! While I was having phone calls with my friends or relatives. I noticed that I used to picture, in my ‘mind’s eye’, their faces and the places they were calling me from. We obviously talked a lot about the impact of COVID in everyday life. I recall picturing detailed images of their description of people queuing at the supermarket next to my parents’ house, or my cousin’s kids attending Zoom classes in their living room, or my best friend cooking dinner for her partner. I’ve always being a visual person and I was not surprised to notice my visual imagination activated in that way. Thinking about that now, I think that such pictures would have been even more vivid if I could add sounds, smell, or touching elements! 

How did you try to stay ‘healthy’ in that kind of environment? How to stay healthy in a hospital is indeed a fair question and I am not being ironic about that! Being forced to remain for weeks in a confined space can represent a threat for your physical and mental health. And living in an aseptic space and having your temperature checked twice a day is not of great help. As I said, my roommate and I organized our daily activities according to a precise schedule that included physical exercises, rest, work, and leisure. I think that this has been the reason why at the end of the quarantine both of us were feeling in a really good shape and in a good mood. It felt like we had had the opportunity to take time for ourselves. I asked my fellow colleagues about how they felt when they were released from the sanatorium and the majority of them gave me a very similar response. The most surprising part to me was to discover that all of us basically adopted the same “strategy” to cope with the isolation and we did it spontaneously. Survival instinct?    

What was the first thing you did / where was the first place you went upon leaving quarantine? The lockdown measures have been lifted very carefully and gradually in the region where I live. Walks around the city were authorized late in May, stores opened in late June, restaurants in July, gyms and movie theatres only in August. The first thing I did was meeting two friends of mine for a cup of coffee and drinking it while walking around the city centre. It was late Spring and it is a beautiful season in Siberia. You really can see the nature coming back to life, almost ‘celebrating’ the end of the winter with an explosion of green leaves and full-coloured flowers. I recall that afternoon as a moment of particular sensorial awareness. I discovered myself paying attention not just to what I was seeing but also hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. It was probably a consequence of the partial sensory deprivation due to isolation and the overuse of vision we have been forced in to during the lockdown. 

As a historian of medicine, did spending two weeks in a sanatorium make you rethink any of your own research? I work on the social history of ophthalmology and visual impairment and I couldn’t help noticing how my vision was reacting to this new environment. I noted how living in a small space makes the human eye loose its plasticity and adapt, focusing only on a small distance. This situation made me recall my work on school myopia, and in particular the first studies physicians made on eye disorders amongst students in the 1860s-1870s. Enquiring about the reasons for the high number of cases of myopia amongst the school population, they discovered that one of the most prominent causes was spending a great part of the day in a confined space. As the human eye is physiologically made for distant vision, when the visual horizon is restricted the eye loses plasticity and became acquainted to see clearly only objects that are at a short distance. It is basically the equivalent of scoliosis of the eye. I shared these thoughts with some my colleagues later and more than one told me that they had the same impression about how quarantine was affecting their own vision.

What do you think that future historians should know about your experience? I think that the useful takeaway for a historian from what I experienced is that your professional competences as a scholar could really come in handy in the real life. And – conversely – your life’s experience can be useful to your work. In our job we tend to believe that to write good history you need to develop a sort of detachment from your subject and that this is paramount to be objective about the topic you are working on. That excludes almost a priori to make yourself the object of your own historical enquiry. But it can actually be very productive to engage in such an exercise. By analysing your experience you become aware of its composite and multifaced nature and its different aspects. By telling it and writing it down you add value to it. By sharing it you achieve connection with other people who have lived the same experience, whether scholars like you or not. It is not a mere self-centred exercise (for example what in France is called ego-histoire, which is a sort of academic exercise in which a scholar is asked to write a critical analysis of his/her own career). It is a way to recall that making history matters, and being a historian in our times is useful. 

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