The Soundscape of Quarantine: The Role of Sound During a Public Health Crisis

Braxton Boren



The rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus has led to lockdowns and quarantines around the world. In the midst of this unprecedented crisis, many researchers and practitioners in the fields of audio and acoustics may wonder if their own skillsets offer any useful contribution to this public health disaster. Rather than attempting to become second-rate epidemiologists overnight, it would be best to focus on the role of sound during this pandemic.


One of the most notable aspects of the novel coronavirus outbreak of 2020 has been the extent of quarantines across countries which have not experienced such a dramatic infringement on personal liberties in generations. Many fear that “quarantine fatigue” may set in, meaning that many individuals will try to resume normal activities outside of the home before it is safe to do so. Indeed, it was partially the fear of societal fatigue from a long lockdown that led to the British government's initial focus on mitigation rather than suppression of the disease. This policy was only reversed after a report predicted that hundreds of thousands would die from the disease unless extreme social distancing measures were put in place for a long period of time (Adam 2020: 316-318). 


Given this risk, most Western countries implemented various forms of quarantines or lockdowns intended to keep most people in their homes most of the time. As of June 2020, many nations are beginning to reopen; however, in many cases this is due more to quarantine fatigue rather than the end of the pandemic, as a vaccine is still predicted to be many months away at least. Many epidemiologists predict a resurgence of the disease at the end of summer in keeping with trends for seasonal flu-like epidemics. If no vaccine is ready by the fall, new lockdowns, longer in duration than the first, may be needed. If such measures are continued for several months, there will be increased risk of social fatigue and future outbreaks. It is in this battle – to ameliorate the psychological toll of staying indoors for months – that the sound community may play the most helpful role. 


The International Commission for Acoustics, along with several other professional sound-related societies, helped establish 2020 as the “International Year of Sound.” This effort, now delayed until 2021 because of the pandemic, initially focused on the role of sound in society, especially in the workplace and public spaces. Given the extreme social distancing measures now in place, perhaps 2020 ought to be devoted instead to the role of sound when society is shut indoors for several months. While the stakes are quite different than for a public space (see for example McCafferty 2016), the basic principles remain the same: to allow people the best chance to stay inside long enough for the pandemic to subside, we ought to seek practical ways to reduce annoyance from noise and create a shared soundscape that connects people who feel isolated from the rest of the world.