A Kiwi on the everyday ghastliness of New York under lockdown
New Zealand sociologist Julie I Thompson reports on lockdown life in the Big Apple.
Close friends, longtime friends and relatives in New Zealand who I haven’t heard from in a while are reaching out. It’s very heartening. They tell me that the news from America is really awful. Especially the news from New York. Are you scared? Are you safe? Will you be okay?
James, an Auckland friend, texts or calls a couple of times a week - “Just checking in”. He hopes I’m not going out. “I have to go out sometimes”, I say. “I need milk, yoghurt, green vegetables.” “You really shouldn’t”, he says. “Have you got peanut butter?” “Yes.” “Okay, you don’t need to go out. You can eat peanut butter until this is over.” He doesn’t sound as if he’s joking. “I think the peanut butter will run out before then”, I say. This is true because NYC’s lockdown – called PAUSE - will now last at least until 15 May. Governor Cuomo says, “We don’t use ‘lockdown’ because that is for situations where there is an active shooter."
We are free to move around. Nobody is policing us.Cuomo has now issued an order that people must wear masks if they are near others. Last time I was out, I passed a policeman wearing a simple surgical mask - under his chin. A curious number of people favour this style; others place it on their foreheads, as if it were a pair of sunglasses.
Now they warn we can get infected if we walk through air recently exhaled by an infected person. This is because, “they” now say, the virus seems to hang around in the air. Earlier “they” said it was a “heavy virus” that fell to the ground so we were not in danger of breathing it in.
On what turned out to be my last time on the subway, days before we were advised to stop going out and long before anyone was wearing a mask, I coughed a small cough. Maybe I needed to relieve a tickle in my throat or dislodge a mite of dust? I turned my head and raised my upper arm. The cough went nowhere but a woman sitting opposite me got up and walked to the far end of the car. I thought: “I’m becoming afraid of other people but other people are also afraid of me.”
As the days pass, it becomes more anxiety-provoking to even think about going out. Before the lockdown, I went to the bank and got some cash in small notes so I could tip the delivery guy bringing me take-out food. And, I managed to get supplies of just about every non-perishable item I will need for the foreseeable future - stuff like face moisturizer, liquid hand soap for 20 second hand-washing all day long, light bulbs, litter and a four-month supply of the food for my two cats. I already had toilet paper. But I do need the Financial Times on Saturday mornings. And perishables. The body starts to object if it can’t have fresh vegetables, especially greens. So, there is the “leaving the house” saga.
Before I go out, I change into my “outside clothes” which I leave in the entrance-way of my house. Since I don’t venture out more than twice a week, I figure any viruses caught in the fabric have time to decay and it’s unlikely I’ll inhale them when I put the clothes on again. It’s just a guess. No-one seems to have tested the virus’s ability to last on fabric. On cardboard, they say it’s about 24 hours; longer on harder surfaces. I’m trying to be careful.
I put my credit card in my pocket separate from my wallet so I don’t have to dig for it in the shop with my possibly infected hands. I replenish my supply of Clorex wipes to take with me in the sealed plastic bag. I put on my infectious diseases N-95 mask which I just happened to find when I was looking for something else among my gardening supplies. It was a lucky find. There is still a dreadful shortage of N-95 masks here for frontline workers. This one was dusty and it left a brown film on my face before I wiped it down. I don’t feel guilty about not passing it on to a needy worker. Over the mask, I wrap a long tightly-woven scarf and tie it behind my head. High fashion or Sharia, I jokingly ask friends when I email a photo. I wipe down and re-use the mask. I’m not sure how often I can do this and still expect it to be effective. I’m of an age where others consider me to be especially vulnerable.
On the street, I clutch a couple of Clorex wipes in my hand ready to use it to open a door if I must (and then throw it away) and to wipe my hands down once my shopping is in my bag. I scan to see who is coming towards me, check to see if there are fewer people on the opposite side of the street, and zig-zag back and forwards to stay out of people’s way. It’s the prevalence of the disease that makes me anxious. There seems to be so much of it here. What are the chances of avoiding it? New York City Mayor, Bill DeBlasio, said weeks ago he was pretty sure “we’ve all been exposed now. It’s been around since January”, he said. “There’s no way we’re not all infected.” Not everyone agrees with him. I’m not sure I do. Never-the-less the thought is there: How much exposure can your body take before it gives in and you get sick?
When I get home, I gather the things I need to refrigerate and wipe them down with Clorex wipes. I do the same with the other items but these I leave in the entryway, hoping the virus will shrivel up and lose its potency by the time I retrieve them three days later. I also leave my mail where it lands after the post-woman pushes it through the mail-slot. I take off my “outside gear” and put on my indoor (safe) clothes. I feel only relief when I’m inside my home again.
The main ailment affecting people I know is “Covid-brain”. Pam wakes up with a sore throat and a dry cough and thinks: Covid-19? Karen has a headache she can’t get rid of. It is helped a bit by Tylenol which we’re told is best for Covid aches. Is it Covid-19? Martina’s muscles ache everywhere, sometimes the pain is unlike anything she’s experienced before. It must be Covid-19? Will it get worse?
They all live with enormous anxiety - and then the symptoms go away. Most of us have no access to a test to see if the virus is in our body or to an antibody test that would show if we’ve had it. We have to hope that it’s only Covid-brain, not Covid-19, and that we’ll recover. The two friends in New York who really do seem to have Covid-19 are also doing well. Many New Yorkers are not so lucky. Cuomo says that upwards of 2000 are still admitted to hospital every day with Covid-19.
When I ask my friend, Judith, what she’s focusing on these days, I expect her to say “the Depths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism” or something like that. Instead, she says: “My #1 focus is staying out of hospital”. I tell her: “Mine is to not getting sick. Forget hospital. That’s a nightmare not to be contemplated.” She agrees.
She also agrees there couldn’t be a worse time to have a President like the one in the White House. Watching him reject the functions of the federal government as any responsibility of his, do his best to pick fights with governors who are Democrats while sending supplies of personal protective safety equipment to States with Republican governors, and repeatedly threaten to fire the most knowledgeable infectious disease specialist in the US government, surely increases the anxiety of people like me. The importance of a good leader can’t be over-estimated as my New Zealand friends remind me while pointing proudly to Jacinda’s latest act of brilliance. I don’t disagree. I tell them I’m glad she gives them peace-of-mind.
A lot of good things are happening in my neighbourhood and beyond because of the coronavirus. New York State (NYS) is providing free therapy to help people beat the lockdown blues. New York City (NYC) is making three meals a day available free to anyone who needs/wants one. And, it is providing free hotel rooms for health care workers who don’t wish to go home each night for fear of spreading the virus. Volunteers are helping seniors and other people who are home-bound get food and medicines or their laundry done. Everything is “contactless”; stuff is left on the step.
The Prospect Park Track Club sends a note to the neighbourhood saying: If you need something, please send an email to email@example.com. “We have volunteers who will provide delivery service. Since we all have either a bike or the ability to run with a backpack, we will not be reliant on public transit or other higher risk modes of transport.”
Near me, an impressive woman called Jessica Fields set up the Park Slope Together Facebook page, opened an online fundraising account, called for volunteers, and is coordinating with restaurants to deliver 400 meals three times a day to staff in local hospitals who are working at the edge of the Covid-19 crisis under the most difficult conditions imaginable, mostly without enough protective gear, in facilities where every bed is a “Covid bed”, as Governor Cuomo put it.
In most streets, people gather on their front steps or hang out of windows at 7 o’clock each evening yelling and pot banging, letting off steam, singing the praises of frontline workers, thanking them for their “sacrifice”. So far 59 people who operate trains and buses or help make them run have died of the virus.
Will I be okay? No-one knows how this is going to turn out. Will people who’ve had the virus be immune to another bout? Will this contagion sweep the globe again before a vaccine is developed and tested? Will a second go-round be more vicious than the first? I’m okay, I assure my friends. But I did remind one very good friend in Kerikeri that after the Twin Towers were attacked on 9/11, a lot of people phoned to say they were fine. They never made it out of the burning building. You don’t know, do you?
Then there is this truth about living in the age of Covid-19 for a person like me. I tell my friends who worry: I am very lucky. I am very privileged. I am fortunate to live in a house that is beautiful and spacious and, most importantly, has a garden. I exercise on my patio. I dig in the dirt. I plant roses which arrive, months after they were ordered from the nursery. I enjoy afternoon tea in my sunny garden with friends, albeit virtually. I do not like Zoom or Facetime but they are better than not having tea with my friends. Facetime is making it possible for me to join friends in Manhattan for cocktails and dinner on Saturday night. How bad can things be?
Julie I Thompson was runner-up in the 2019 Surrey Hotel-Newsroom writers' residency award. She helped to create New Zealand's Halfway House for abused women, and wants to write a history of that life-saving initiative.
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