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Ever felt your face flush as you start a coughing fit in public? Covid-19 has brought on a fear of coughing, but Katrina Williams argues why a little more compassion around the issue would help us all.

It was the end of August, and I had just developed some sort of horrible bug. After a frantic lateral flow test to confirm I wasn’t suffering from the ever-frightening Covid-19, I was left with a foggy brain and a throat on fire – not at all exasperated by my tendency to run my mouth whenever opportunity arises. I lost my voice a few days later. But this was fine: despite being a habitually annoying rambler, I could deal with not spouting rubbish for a little while.

Then came the recovery period and the revelation of my ultimate hubris. I had swanned down the St. Enoch subway station’s escalators, breezing through the turnstiles and onto the next Inner Circle service towards campus. Perched on my seat, swiping through my Spotify library as we rumbled between Buchanan Street and Cowcaddens, I began to notice a strange tickle at the back of my throat, something much more insistent than its then-typical rawness. I still don’t know the cause of it – I’m assuming it’s something to do with the humidity and uncomfortable moistness in the air – but whatever it was, two stations later, I was bent over myself with my eyes burning as I tried not to hack my lungs out. No, I’m not exaggerating. It got to a point where I felt as if I was going to throw up if I didn’t immediately evacuate to fresh air and whip my mask off. And so I did: one stop before my usual, I dragged myself up and out to the promises of Great Western Road and dragged my sorry self, sputtering all the way, through the opposite side of campus towards my destination.

"I was bent over myself with my eyes burning as I tried not to hack my lungs out. No, I’m not exaggerating."

If I had told this story to a 2019 audience I think I would’ve been laughed right out the door. “All you needed to do was cough!” they’d chortle, and that would be that. Yet as you and I are both aware, as unfortunate residents of a post-pandemic age, there are now dreadful connotations that come with a simple cough. I’m sure we’ve all been both the instigators and victims of the after-effects of a cough-averse society: flashing both nervous looks at those hacking away and shrinking in shame from the same worried eyes. Considering how deadly the virus is, and how much it has altered our society, being terrified of contracting Covid-19 is completely natural. But it really shouldn’t be this way.

Let me admit something to you. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been afflicted with a post-nasal drip (also known as catarrh). For those unfamiliar with the term, post-nasal drip refers to a build-up of mucus often in the back of one’s throat. If it’s chronic, like mine is, this accumulation is incessant and uncomfortable, often inciting you to cough in order to clear your throat. It’s kind of gross, but I commonly have to spend a couple minutes or so each morning hacking up globules of phlegm into my bathroom sink depending on how bad it got overnight. I’ve been known to light-heartedly apologise for my “phlegm cough” when in favourable company, and that used to be the extent to which it caused me much, if any, real embarrassment or issue. As the NHS puts it, post-nasal drip is at the end of the day just a “nuisance” and causes no real harm bar being a bit of a pain on occasion. 

Nevertheless, there’s no way to apologise for a stodgy cough on public transport, which has often been an anxious concern of mine both as a result of my mucus-filled throat and my occasional flirts with mediocre illnesses. Similarly, there’s also no way of knowing why someone might need to cough, either. They could be sick from something other than Covid-19, or have a chronic condition. None of these factors are any of our businesses, and assuming it should be is pretty ableist. Coughing can be a symptom of long-term disability (which, for those who decide to define it as such on the basis of how it affects their lives, can include chronic illnesses), and said disabilities often aren’t visible. And no, that doesn’t mean those with disabilities should have to announce them to the world, no matter the reason. It’s a question of personal comfort, and up to them and them alone.

"...there’s no way to apologise for a stodgy cough on public transport..."

Though I understand being wary, if someone is coughing because they have to, and is making all the effort to stand away from others as well as taking all applicable relevant precautions (which, as is important to keep in mind, may not include wearing a mask as they could be medically exempt), there is no reason to instigate something with or attempt to upset them on basis of something they can’t control. There’s countless conditions that can instigate a recurring cough, plenty of them much more concerning than my own inconvenient experience with post-nasal drip and week-long stint of illness. If you can empathise with my story, then you should empathise with everyone else experiencing similarly chronic conditions, no matter the severity – and often, they are much more severe than mine. Some of us can bear holding in a cough until the next subway stop, whilst many others cannot, so be thoughtful, and treat others how you’d like to be treated. Yeah – it’s a little cliché, but kindness never goes out of style even in a post-pandemic world.


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