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A woman wearing a mask walks the Brooklyn Bridge in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City (Photo by Victor J. Blue/Getty Images)
A woman wearing a mask walks the Brooklyn Bridge in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City (Photo by Victor J. Blue/Getty Images)

SocietyApril 12, 2020

The quiet city: A month in a transformed New York

A woman wearing a mask walks the Brooklyn Bridge in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City (Photo by Victor J. Blue/Getty Images)
A woman wearing a mask walks the Brooklyn Bridge in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City (Photo by Victor J. Blue/Getty Images)

The greatest of cities is rapidly becoming the most afflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tess McClure, a New Zealand journalist based in New York, writes. 

March 12 – 95 cases in NYC

At the start of today – Thursday – we still thought we’d be going to work. The first emails had come through that week, discussing prep to possibly work from home: instructions to download Zoom, queries about transporting equipment. But it wouldn’t happen yet. I’d already thought through my rationale for coming into the office: I walk to work, I don’t spend an hour in the subway car breathing in other commuters’ fumes. I’m attentive to handwashing, to cleaning surfaces. There aren’t as many people in the office building now. Fewer than 100 cases have been detected in a city of 8.6 million. No-one has died. I haven’t had contact with any sick people.

But this evening, as I walk home, my flatmate texts to tell me he has a fever and a tickle in his throat.

I make the walk, trying to buy more supplies on the way, targeting small neighbourhood pharmacies because the big drugstore chains are already wiped out. I buy one store’s last roll of Clorox wipes, a bottle of bleach spray, and the last pack of disposable gloves at the back of a shelf. I walk home under the subway bridge of the 1 train, and the city that night is quieter than at any time I have ever seen it.

I walk into my apartment, place the supplies on the ground, wash my hands twice, walk to my room, sit on my bed, and don’t move for several hours. I consider the shared surfaces of my house: doorknob, tap, kitchen bench, chopping board, lightswitch, towels. My apartment building – an enormous Blade Runner-vibe tower block – has units for more than 1,100 families. Some are multigenerational, many are living more than five to a unit. All of us share the same corridors, the same washers and dryers, the same recycling bins, the same rubbish chutes, the same elevator buttons and door handles. I make plans to stay at a friend’s apartment. The next day, I do not go in to the office.

A Subway platform in Jackson Heights, Queens on April 10 (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

March 14 – 296 cases, one death

On Saturday, people start dying. The first death in the city is an 82-year-old woman.

A week earlier, I had taken the subway downtown to a gathering held in the stark-lit basement of a city building. It gives support to people seeking asylum in the US or attempting to find relief and moral support with the brutal mechanics of deportation and detention. It calls people who come through the door “friends”, not clients or customers. That night, a friend sat for three hours at the table I was assigned to, painstakingly filling out an asylum form. They had little time left before the court date. Slowly, they answered brief questions, blunted by the language barrier: “Gunshots? How many? Women or children, or women and children? How many? Estimate?” The night had ended with the asylum form half completed.

On Saturday, an email announced the clinic was cancelled and would attempt to move online. I wondered what would happen to this friend. I googled ICE court appearances and saw they were going ahead. I tried to think about every person in New York without a computer and without a buffer of time, financial resource, insurance, citizenship, or government sympathy to carry them through this. How many in this city alone – 500,000? Maybe a million, maybe two.

March 15 (700 cases, 3 deaths) to March 23 (10,764 cases, 99 deaths)

This week, they announce all restaurants and bars will close. The city’s streets start emptying out. But spring break begins, and the party rolls on into Miami, through Florida. “If I get corona, I get corona! At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying,” a ruddy-cheeked teenager scoffs to camera. The Florida partiers set off a wave of condemnation for the risk they pose to their communities, their parents, and their grandparents – we still thought at the start of the week that young people weren’t at risk.

But on Wednesday, the New York Times releases a report that young people are getting sick, making up 40% of those hospitalised. In news feeds, there are more and more accounts of young people dying: a Brooklyn school principal. A teenager from California. Two young doctors. I try to break the habit of scrolling down looking for sentences about pre-existing conditions. Often enough, they don’t seem to have any.

My flatmate’s fever continues, and I look for empty apartments from friends who have left the city to house-sit. On Sunday night, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo tells us all to stay home. The next day, the city’s death toll ticks over to 99.

New York City shuts down some streets to promote physical distancing (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

March 24 – 12,000 cases, 192 deaths

Over chat and Zoom, we talk incessantly about testing. Why aren’t they testing? How do you get a test if you’re sick? Everyone knows someone who knows someone with the symptoms – the fever, the cough, the tight chest – who can’t get a test. The state is still only testing people who require hospitalisation. I have a recurring anxiety dream about walking up a lushly grassed hill that becomes steeper and steeper until I suddenly realise it’s too steep – unclimbable. My sneakers start to slide over the flattened grass, scrabbling for purchase. Occasionally, I tip backwards and start to fall.

Governor Cuomo holds one of his daily press conferences. “We haven’t flattened the curve and the curve is actually increasing,” he says. I look up a graph of the US trajectory of cases. The line arcs up, almost vertical now, cases doubling every few days. No sign of a slowdown, of suddenly returning to a gentler, surmountable incline.

March 31 – 41,771 cases, 1,096 deaths

I get an email that two people from the immigration clinic have died. Most of the city has paused, but the more brutal institutions plough on. There is no cessation of many immigration courts. Asylum seekers in camps remain there. Prisoners stay in their blocks. They start digging graves and manufacturing hand sanitiser for the outside, while the virus moves quickly from cell to cell. Tomorrow, with millions of people already out of work, rent will be due.

April 2 – 52,000 cases, 1,562 deaths

A video circulates on social media and I watch it three times. A man is filming on his phone, out the car window, outside Brooklyn hospital. “This is for real y’all,” he repeats over and over again, “This is for real.” The phone shakes in his hands, as he watches staff using a pallet-stacker to load bodies into a refrigerated truck. “This is for real. please stay home, y’all, please. This is for real,” his voice starts to crack. “Please take this seriously. Please stay home.”

The day before yesterday, President Trump held a press conference. He stood in front of a large slide, titled “goals of community mitigation”. The slide showed the two, now-ubiquitous curves of intervention and non-intervention. In smaller script, by the flattened curve, it read “100-240,000”. Up to 200,000 may die if America followed containment measures “almost perfectly”, said Dr Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus coordinator. She said many states had yet to put strict stay-at-home measures in place; 240,000 is death on an unimaginable scale – it’s the city of Wellington. It’s every student at a state secondary school in Aotearoa. It’s more than the population of Samoa.

An emergency medical worker between two ambulances parked outside NYU Langone Health in New York City (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

April 2-6 – 57,159 cases, 1,867 deaths

In a quarantined apartment, most of the work is getting through the boredom, loneliness and anxiety – I know I’m insufferably lucky that those are my primary challenges.

Inside, life is mundane, uneventful, and utterly domestic. Outside, just out of sight, the catastrophe rolls on. The dissonance deepens the longer I remain indoors – the enormity of events outside, the smallness of events inside.

It is like trying to make your brain exist in two places at once. The Times reports that some hospital morgues are filling. They start to park refrigerated trucks outside to hold the bodies. When I hear this, I walk a circle around the apartment and stop to press my thumb into the soil of a potted plant to check if it’s overwatered. Some hospitals are reaching capacity now and you see on TV sick people lining up outside for hours. At home, I make another cup of tea. While I adjust my laptop angle for another Zoom meeting, a colleague says a temporary morgue has been constructed on his block. In Texas, an official argues to reopen the shops, to embrace the spread, and allow over-70s to fend for themselves. Last week, Trump announced he wanted the country’s restrictions lifted for Easter so the economy can recover. Podcast hosts start to debate how many lives – hundreds of thousands? Millions? – are worth sacrificing to keep the US economy rolling. I open Youtube to Yoga with Adriene and spread a mat in the space beside the coffee table.

It is difficult to continue to take in what is happening when so little of it is immediately visible and so little meaningful action is available in response. I listen to an interview on the New Yorker Radio Hour where behavioural economist and psychologist Daniel Kahnemann – author of Thinking: Fast and Slow – describes his own hemming and hawing about whether to take a trip to Paris, even as the death toll mounted and the trajectory of the virus became predictable. Even with the facts in mind, he couldn’t quite grasp what was approaching. An epidemic, with its exponential growth, is “beyond intuitive human comprehension”. He says the challenge is getting people “to behave in a way that is appropriate to a state of fear when they’re not experiencing fear”. Maybe this best describes life inside: behaviour appropriate to fear made strange by the appearance of normalcy, the lack of visible terrors.

Manhattan viewed from Weehawken, New Jersey. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

For now, I tell myself that much of the task has to do with the small things: endless hand washing, wiping doorknobs, overtipping food workers, resisting the temptation to take an extra pack of toilet paper, stepping into the gutter to keep a six-foot (approximately two-metre) radius from the person on the footpath. I start to think that even to militantly maintain these small things may be hard. It’s hard to resist carelessness, especially as time rolls on, and the crisis isn’t visible inside the small, tightening radius of my current life.

Perhaps it will be harder still in New Zealand, where competent government and strictly-enforced lockdown have hope of keeping the cases and the death toll low. When I read the New Zealand news, I start to see op-eds speculating that it might all be an overreaction. Columnists have begun to worry: don’t use a hammer to crush a flea, they write. My persistent, internal feeling, as I tend pot plants and watch the death toll rise, is of underreaction: feeling like a flea, skittering in place, wishing for some force and weight to wield. Like Kahneman, I think it’s hard to comprehend that the worst might come to you, even as you watch it topple other countries.

A few weeks ago, I read an op-ed by an Italian journalist who had a warning the US. “We thought a few local lockdowns, cancelling public gatherings, and warmly encouraging working from home would be enough to stop the spread of the virus,” he wrote. “We now know that wasn’t nearly enough.” I thought: that sounds like what we’re doing.

Sometime between April 6-7

Things show little sign of slowing. Governor Cuomo has announced that the peak in cases will not come until the end of April. Hospitals are inching closer to full capacity. Health workers have begun to die. Supermarket workers have begun to die. Train workers have begun to die.

New York quickly became the epicentre of the virus in the United States, which now has the worst outbreak in the world. As is often the case with American suffering, black and native communities across the country are meted out the worst of it.

A Montefiore Medical Center employee in New York City walks past signs thanking medical staff (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

April 7 76,876 cases, 5,489 deaths

The streets aren’t dead quiet, but they’re quieter than ever. When I first moved to this neighbourhood, it took time to learn to sleep and work through the constant noise of the city: 2am fights, taxi drivers leaning on the horn, jackhammers a block away, bottles smashing, prayers at the mosque next door, the man who used to set up his speaker-on-wheels and deckchair and play The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill outside my window. I remember actively listening to it some nights and thinking: it’s not just the crashing and yelling of this street, it’s the next block, and the next block, and beyond that whole city’s cumulative rumble.

Now, there’s not much of that. You hear more birds, which is nice. And you still hear sirens, maybe more than ever, wailing up and down Manhattan.

Last night I took a walk through Morningside Park, near dusk. At 7pm, I start to hear the noise growing, rumbling in from the distance, and then a woman starts slamming a pot till it rings like a bell on her balcony. A man whistles and yells “HELL YES” from an apartment roof, and it grows, the city collectively leaning out its apartment windows to holler and clap for frontline workers. It’s good to hear it again, not just the shouts nearby, but the blending of thousands of other people’s noise. After so much quiet, the clapping seems to fill up the hollow of the park and rebound off the schist, cresting the hill, maybe, and echoing all the way to Mt Sinai Hospital, up on the rise.

Keep going!