Covid-19: the view from New York City…

A few days ago I did something unprecedented (for me) because we are living in unprecedented times, and I wrote a comment on Slugger. As an ex-pat living outside my hometown of Belfast since 1996 or thereabouts, and a resident of New York City since 2002, I’ve been an avid reader for years but it’s never been in my constitutional makeup to get involved in BTL discussions on any online forum. Whilst it can be enlightening and informative, have-your-say commentary seems to me oftentimes prone to deteriorate into a bit of a slagging match, to use a technical term. Many news media on both sides of the pond have decommissioned BTL comments for fear of defamation actions. However, my comment was not on one of Slugger’s favourite discourse topics, namely The Dreaded Constitutional Question, but rather on the actual horror that we are watching unfold before our eyes even as I type: the Covid-19 pandemic. A couple of people suggested I might want to pen a longer contribution from my perspective in NYC and to be honest I prevaricated, firstly because I am still recuperating from what is very probably a dose of the very same virus-du-jour (more on that below) but also because, unlike commenting, prevaricating is very much in my constitutional makeup.

However a few new developments here in NYC and State have shocked me so much, even after everything that has already transpired, I thought I might follow through after all. If you didn’t see the original comment, I’ll paraphrase and expand upon it here by way of background and updated information.

I’ll begin where I started, which was with a plea to everyone back in Ireland (both parts) to take the Covid-19 health precautions and warnings very seriously, which from what I am seeing in the news, you are. I had quoted some statistics on infection and death rates in New York City and State, which now only three days (!!!) later I have to substantially and upwardly revise.

To put this in context, two weeks ago I was still commuting to work from Brooklyn into midtown Manhattan on the subway. Bars, cafes, restaurants, and shops were all open. The sidewalks were as packed as ever. We were aware something was going on and maybe used a little extra hand sanitizer. Admittedly, anyone on the train or the street wearing a mask or gloves was looked on with not a little derision, but the platforms, stations, and trains quickly began to empty and with no trace of irony the bars were suddenly ordered closed on Saint Patrick’s Day. Next, my office went into a 1-in-3 day staff rotation and flexible working times to reduce contact with large groups of people. People considered “at-risk” were sent home.

I thought I was being fairly careful, washing my hands regularly, elbow-bumping friends instead of hugging or shaking hands, easily avoiding crowds when walking in the local park with my dog, but nevertheless I got sick and was told to stay at home alone for 14 days. I’ll spare the details about my illness (I didn’t get tested, see below) but just imagine a very bad man-flu plus the worst hangover ever with not enough strength to leave bed for days on end and shortness of breath. I immediately had to foster my dog out to some friends because I was unable to care for her. After a week to 10 days I seem to be gradually on the mend, but still missing the pup and physical human contact. And now for some frankly frightening stats which I have gleaned from various (reliable) news and government sources:

As I understand it, as of Monday morning March 30th here in New York City we were approaching 800 recorded deaths; about 2 weeks ago I believe the figure was zero. When I wrote my comment 2 or 3 days ago it was 500. There are over 60,000 confirmed infection cases across NY State, with 35,000 and counting of those here in the City (NYC population 8+ million, with all-Ireland’s population about 7 million by way of comparison). It’s generally acknowledged that there are vastly more uncounted cases because so many people cannot get tested and are being told to self-isolate and only call 911 (aka 999) for help if you are in a truly “dire situation”. My primary care doctor is offering online consultations only.

The visuals are straight out of a dystopian episode of Black Mirror. I mentioned in my comment that the enormous Javits Exhibition Center in Manhattan (imagine a 170,000 square metre version of the Kings Hall) has been converted into an emergency hospital by the US Army Corps of Engineers with an almost 3,000 bed capacity. The US Navy sent a huge hospital warship into New York Harbour to relieve the strain, it arrived on Monday morning (see photo my friend took stuck in her 40th floor apartment). In scenes increasingly replicated across the world, the streets remain eerily empty and quiet except for the disconcerting and never-ending sound of ambulance sirens. There are refrigerated trucks parked outside some of the finest hospitals in NYC for use as morgues. Pictures of the dead stacked in body-bags are beginning to be leaked by nurses online. Hospitals are describing the situation as a “war zone”. I could go on…

My point is that most of this really only escalated quickly in the last fortnight or so, but that we were in all likelihood carrying and sharing the virus for weeks beforehand. People are revisiting that “mysterious” flu they had back in February. It doesn’t matter who or what is to blame [feel free to insert name of 45th president here if so inclined] but this is actually happening and people from every background, including healthcare workers, are dying. The virus is taking out young and old alike; I don’t have the source to hand but yesterday it was reported that 40% of hospitalizations are in the 20 to 50 age group.

And finally, as if exhibition centres and warships as hospitals were not shocking enough, on Sunday construction began on a tent field-hospital right in Central Park on the Upper East Side. It’s the work of a benevolent Christian organization, so I imagine it’ll be like M.A.S.H. minus the moonshine. All of this in the richest city in the world!

I’m writing from the perspective of a Brooklynite; the worsening national situation is well documented elsewhere. The subject of divisive and bipartisan politics, Federal versus State government, and the pros and cons US health-care system would fill another article or ten, so I’ll leave it there for now. I have close family both on the front-line and in the full-time care of the esteemed but beleaguered NHS so I am watching developments “back home” closely. I’m hearing of preparation for morgues in army bases near Belfast and make-shift hospital preparations in the Titanic Quarter. Sounds uncannily familiar. For your own sake, your loved ones, and for that of all the health and emergency response workers and volunteers out there, stay home if you can, stay safe if you can’t, and wash your hands!


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