Alive from the US heart of Covid-19, New York City
Kiwi writer and photographer Cherie Aarts Coley sent this dispatch from isolation in New York City, the US epicentre of Covid-19
I’m not sure what day it is today, or the date. I barely even know the month. It doesn’t seem to matter any more. Mostly all that seems to matter now is to stay sane enough so I might be of some use, somehow, to my family, my neighbours, the city I call home for now, and for my parents at home on the Coromandel.
Mostly it’s the sirens that have been pushing me over the edge. I’m used to hearing them two or three times a day at most - random interludes of slight annoyance between the cacophony of school children playing in nearby schoolyards, dogs barking, sassy couples arguing, or a random red Corvette blasting nineties house music and waving a Puerto Rican flag.
New York City is usually an audio-fest of brazen fun, honesty and precociousness. But not right now. The sirens seem like an almost constant whine, with painful intermittent screaming and moaning. NYC’s emergency calls are at 9/11 levels, and while the noise itself doesn’t bother me so much, what is most disturbing is the thought attached to the sound; that in almost every single ambulance, someone is gasping for air, or experiencing heart failure (the latest prevalent Covid-19 complication that’s turning up here).
We live in a small, two-bedroom apartment in an eight-floor condo building in Brooklyn that we bought 10 years ago after we moved to New York from San Francisco, where our daughter was born 16 years ago. My partner is Canadian, I’m a Kiwi, and our daughter is now, well and truly, a New Yorker. When expats around the world were being asked to return “home” a few weeks ago, that put us in a bit of a quandary. Our daughter had no desire to leave her friends, even though it increasingly appeared she wouldn’t get to see much of them. My partner still has a job that he needs to be “on” and in the Eastern Time zone for, and at that time we all thought the virus wouldn’t kill us because we weren’t in the 80+ age category. The public sentiment was also ambivalent and there was a prevailing sense that perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad. So we decided to stay.
I began to stock up on supplies, just in case things got bad. I wouldn’t exactly call it panic-buying, more like strategic purchasing. We don’t have the space to hoard vast amounts of anything, and usually only keep a couple of rolls of toilet paper on hand and a few cans of beans. I emptied the freezer of old bread and stuff we would never eat, and gradually began to stock it with bags of frozen veggies and fruit, and containers of homemade chilli and curry. Then I made some room in the laundry cupboard and began stocking up with dry goods. It was somehow compulsively satisfying. I would come home every other day with a backpack full of groceries and cross items of my list until that list began dwindling to nothing. My partner was still in semi-denial mode and was beginning to freak out about the food bills. “Is this the last time?” he’d ask each time I’d arrive back from the supermarket.
Then things began to change. Our daughter got sick. She had a cough, a sore throat, and a fever. She described her breathing as “not like normal, but not too bad.” For five days her temperature was consistently around 102.5 F (39.1 C). I plied her with an old-fashioned herbal concoction (hot water, lemon juice, honey, crushed raw garlic, grated ginger, turmeric, pepper and tinctures of sage and oregano oil). Who knows? It may have just been placebo but it felt good; both for her to consume it and me to make it. We spoke to her doctor on several occasions. She told us to assume it was Covid-19 but, because she wasn’t having too much difficulty with breathing, she couldn’t get tested. They were saving those for the people beginning to turn up at the ER with more serious symptoms.
As our daughter began to recover things began to get worse around us. We had let our neighbours know we may have a Covid case and that if we needed to leave the building to walk the dog we’d be wearing gloves and a mask. The building’s board organised a professional disinfection company to clean all of the common spaces and they also hired an extra cleaner to disinfect all the commonly-touched surfaces every day. Now the smell of bleach is everywhere.
The social distancing began to set in, but belatedly and begrudgingly. It took a real effort not to interact with our neighbours in the way we usually did, especially their children, who didn’t understand why we would refuse to hold their blankies, have to stand so far away, and not let them play ball with our dog. And it took a real effort for most New Yorkers to “get” it. Everyone had to stay and work from home but the parks were initially packed. It just wasn’t New York-style to social distance when you live in such densely-packed neighbourhoods (nor is it Italian or Spanish-style for that matter). It took the hospitals filling up, the traumatic stories to begin trickling in from the front lines, and Papa Cuomo (the state’s governor) telling us all off before New Yorkers finally got the message.
When my partner needed to go get something from his office we used the opportunity not only to raid much-needed supplies of hand sanitiser and disinfecting wipes but also to get some pics of the city on lockdown. We stopped using the subway weeks ago and usually walk or cycle if we need to go somewhere. This time we took his Vespa and drove through the once-bustling, now ghostly streets of Manhattan. There were still some people out and about but many were wearing masks and most were endeavouring to stay six feet apart from others. We dropped off a packet of wipes and an N-95 mask I’d bought earlier at a hospital. It felt good not to have those things sitting on our kitchen counter doing nothing, and despite the palpable tension, the hospital staff were grateful.
It’s been those small moments of relief of some kind that have helped to stave off the anxiety and depression. We make a concerted effort to limit our social media time. I cook, write, study, edit pics, chat with friends and family, bake granola, take the dog out, and meditate, but the dread, anger, exasperation and sadness are still seething under the surface, ready to burst out at any moment.
In part that’s also been because we’ve begun to hear that young people are dying too. Many people in their 20s are turning up at the ER severely ill and struggling to breathe. It almost seems like the virus is morphing; doubling down in its efforts to find more healthy hosts. Cuomo has been doing a stellar job at coordinating the response to this disaster, and at psychotherapy for the masses, but he’s been facing an uphill battle, stuck between the rock of the virus’ onslaught and the hard place of federal government inaction. That’s beginning to change, and hopefully it’ll be in time to save lives. Just how many remains to be seen.
Antibody testing will be a game-changer, but it’s still in its infancy. Two days ago we applied to a hospital in Manhattan doing the testing in order to provide plasma from people who have had the virus to people who are critically ill with it, in the hope that those antibodies can pass on the armour. But while we thought our daughter might be a prime candidate, it turns out they’re currently only looking for people who were definitely tested positive and whose symptoms stopped more than 14 days ago. That’s not her.
So, because we can’t be certain we haven’t had it, we’ve been contemplating leaving. We don’t feel confident about our capacity to help here right now without knowing where we’re at with the virus. So we’re stocking up for self-isolation, and contemplating renting a car to drive up to Canada where we can stay somewhere remote for 14 days, and just “be Canadian” in the woods for a while. Although the virus is beginning to hit Canada, there’s something deeply heartening about the thought of being somewhere relatively calm, where healthcare is well coordinated, and the government has been taking this thing seriously for a while (we also have family there, and hopefully we’ll get to see them once the antibody testing kicks in there). While it feels a little like we might be bailing on New York if we do that, we’re taking heart in the fact that in the worst case scenario, we’d be freeing up a couple of much-needed ventilators here.
The moral of the story for my fellow Kiwis is this: don’t take this virus too lightly. Losing a business or losing your job really sucks, I know (I’ve lost my business), especially if you’re struggling to make ends meet. And staying home can be challenging, especially if you have kids and/or don’t have any outdoor space. But you’ll get through this if you stay smart, stay safe, and stay healthy.
Believe me, you don’t want to experience what’s been going on here in the U.S. It’s a disaster and a tragedy of epic proportions, and one that can hopefully be avoided in our South Pacific haven.
Addendum: 1. It appears that many New Yorkers haven’t “got it” on social distancing. Today hundreds of them flocked to see the navy hospital ship USNS dock in Manhattan. As the Daily Mail in the UK says, “What are they thinking?”
2. The numbers are changing daily; it looks like NYC might “apex” sooner rather than later.
3. Experimental treatments going on during the past few days here in NYC look hopeful.
4. Our emotions are oscillating like the Coney Island roller coaster.
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