Research Knowledge

Building bridges in the midst of a pandemic

Posted on Sunday 7 March 2021

I often think how amazing structural engineers are. They have the courage and skill to design and build for example, a bridge or a skyscraper. It’s hard for me to imagine putting together a flatpack bookcase, much less consider constructing something that will stand for probably hundreds of years, deliver a useful benefit for society, look beautiful, and be safe! That these professionals exist in our world and are willing to learn their trade and take such great responsibility is something I feel we should appreciate as a society. And of course, it is not hard to appreciate the structures themselves, although amid the rush of everyday life we often don’t.

That leads me to think about Covid-19 and some of the things I am not taking for granted. I hope that living through times of uncertainty, illness, and hardship has at least shown us all how societal and personal support structures are important.

Take for example the healthcare system. Covid-19 is scary stuff no matter where in the world you reside, but at least in the UK we have some sort of fall back for when we get ill. So many people in the world do not have this. Can you conceive living day to day, dreading the thought that you could end up critically ill and not have access to any kind of treatment to alleviate your suffering? It must be a hard burden to carry.

And moving towards physical structures, the crisis has also made me appreciate, like never before, the privilege of having a comfortable home. The sense of security one derives from knowing there is a warm, dry, and safe place to be in has always been an important element in our hierarchy of needs, but arguably it is only now, when we have been confined to our homes for long periods of time, that we might actually appreciate what this means. During lockdown I frequently wondered what was happening to those people unlucky enough to be sleeping rough in a world where few fellow citizens have the bandwidth to provide support or a solution. The symbolism of the structure of a home to call your own is incredibly powerful. 

And then we can get truly personal and talk about internal physical processes and perceptions. The crisis I believe is giving us that chance to realise and appreciate our incredible bodies and senses as living support structures. The fact that these work (most of the time) without any conscious direction is amazing. The ability to breath is core to identity and is something that can be abruptly taken away by Covid-19. Just take a mindful breath to experience how grounding it is, and then try to imagine how it would feel to struggle with this.

That the senses lend a comforting structure to our lives is something, being a sensory scientist, I am acutely aware of. Touch is so important to our understanding and connection to the world and other people. Our opportunities to make physical contact have become limited, but at least we now realise how vital they are to our wellbeing. The senses of smell and taste can also be abruptly lost due to Covid-19. Smell is closely linked to memory and emotions and without it the world can feel grey and lacking pleasure. And along with taste, smell is an essential element in maintaining our enjoyment in, and therefore our physical and psychological nourishment, from food and drink. 

In addition to the above structures I mention above, there are of course so many more, such as family, education, friends, etc., whose importance cannot be underestimated. Summing things up, I feel that if only now, during a pandemic, we can stop and appreciate structures and support systems in our lives that we might normally take for granted, something good will come of this situation. We have the opportunity to construct grateful bridges and soaring skyscrapers in each of our hearts that will last a very long time indeed.

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