Field hospital being set up by US National Guards at Jacob K Javits Center in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. 2 April 2020. Photo: New York National Guard / Flickr
Field hospital being set up by US National Guards at Jacob K Javits Center in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. 2 April 2020. Photo: New York National Guard / Flickr

Letter from New York

An account of life under COVID-19 from the new epicentre of the pandemic.
There are some sounds that you associate instinctively with certain cities. Mumbai, where I grew up, had the incessant horns of the cars on its roads. London has the sound of the Big Ben, the clocktower at the Palace of Westminster where the Parliament sits. And New York has the sounds of sirens.
The constant whines of sirens are so ubiquitous that most residents don't even notice the sounds, as a police car with its lights blazing races through the city's avenues and streets to reach the scene of a crime.
Sirens have continued to blare in New York for the past two months, but these are not only the piercing shrieks of police cars; many of these are urgent cries of ambulances. You hear them with metronomic regularity, and it is callous not to notice the sounds. The persistent wails float through the streets and reach me in my apartment even with the windows shut tightly. Then, as if to remind us what this is about, at three o'clock on many afternoons, church bells toll, remembering those who have succumbed to the unsparing virus swallowing New Yorkers' lives.

Funerals are meant to bring people together; here, mourners are told to stay apart.

For most of last week, over 700 people died in New York State every 24 hours. As of 15 April, the state has 202,208 confirmed cases, more than the total of any country, except the United States. If there is a silver lining, it is that the state appears to have reached the peak of infections and deaths, and the figures are plateauing, beginning what is hopefully the descent.
Macabre stories abound: a manifold surge in calls to emergency services from people who can't breathe. In some instances, emergency vehicles are no longer taking patients experiencing serious conditions like cardiac arrests to hospitals which have COVID-19 patients. People sick with other illnesses not being able to get rooms or ventilators. Hospitals are being cleared of patients not infected by the virus, so that the entire building cares for COVID-19 patients. Doctors making agonising decisions of which patient should be kept alive, and who it is time to let go.
In one emergency room, a doctor describes "a traffic jam of stretchers" with newly-arrived patients waiting to be seen. Orange body bags are stacked in other hospitals. Bodies are being lifted into vans by forklift trucks – at the Brooklyn Hospital Center near Fort Greene, and also at the New York Community Hospital in Brooklyn. There is a field hospital now at Jacob K Javits Center in Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan, and makeshift morgues are being assembled, like the one at the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, where workers parked a refrigerated trailer and began building a wooden ramp for bodies to be brought quickly and placed on racks before loading them in vehicles which would take them to funeral homes. To prevent pedestrians from staring, panels are erected. Temporary morgues become necessary after the death toll exceeds 200 in a day, and New York has seen many such days lately.
There is the question of capacity: at one hospital, the morgue can only hold nine bodies at a time. Hospitals are keen to have the bodies moved so that new patients can be brought in; funeral directors are pleading with hospitals to hold the bodies till the services for the newly-departed can take place with the dignity the dead deserve. (One funeral director can deal with about 40-50 cases at a time; the demand has grown sometimes to thrice as many cases). New York has had terrible days – September 11, 2001, the day two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center in the boldest terrorist attack on its soil, was one such. A funeral director told a radio station that, even so, that day was nothing compared to this, because then the anticipated demand did not materialise: many bodies remained beneath the rubble. This time, he said, it is different – bodies are coming in at a fast rate.
Besides, funeral directors are finding it hard to get refrigerated trucks to store bodies, because in some instances the rent for trucks has shot up – partly because of increased demand, and partly because some truck owners don't want to rent out their trucks for holding bodies. With restrictions on large gatherings, some families are able to say goodbye to their loved ones only through glass windows, and those able to go to cemeteries are told to toss flowers from a distance.
Funerals are meant to bring people together; here, mourners are told to stay apart.
Doctors struggle to cope – not all have been tested; not all have the personal protective equipment they need, including face masks. Enterprising hawkers sell masks at five dollars apiece, which are snapped up eagerly, though nobody knows their effectiveness or quality. The city has called upon retired doctors and nurses to return to work, if they are willing to do so. The scene is gruesome near Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, as ambulances rush in with patients who are being brought to the intensive-care units where all that the doctors can hope to do is to make it easier for them to breathe.
It is spring – cherry blossoms are in bloom and the temperature has risen and sunlight filters through the leaves – but the mood is grim. Seeing New York without the bustling masses, without traffic, has an eerie feeling. The city looks like what a Hollywood director would have imagined in a dystopian science fiction film. In the middle of the afternoon you hear bird sounds, and occasionally in the evening, howling dogs.

Like many great cities, New York offers that gift of being alone in a crowd; today, it is the other way round.

In this, New York isn't alone. As we remain in our homes, we see images of Piazza San Marco in Venice, Trafalgar Square in London, or Marine Drive in Mumbai, without the usual mass of tourists, visitors and residents. Those images look great, like calendar art – these are the kind of shots people would like to take, of places without strange people ruining perfect shots by wandering into the frame. But not like this. People have not disappeared from these shots because they are politely letting the photographer be.
New Yorkers have decided to move indoors from the city to protect themselves and their city. The emptiness may seem contrarian, and particularly odd in a city known for its rebelliousness, where life revolves around people coming together – crowded bars in Greenwich Village, children at the carousel at Central Park, the roar of the stadium at Forest Hills, skaters at the rink at the Rockefeller Center, people waiting for people at the clock at the Grand Central Terminal – but those encounters must wait for life to resume.
In his magnificent and evocative 1949 essay 'Here is New York', E B White wrote:
In the 1970 Hindi film, Prem Pujari, there is a song, 'Phoolon ke rang se', in which the lyricist Neeraj writes of the hero remembering his beloved and becoming lonely in a crowd. Yaad tu aaye man ho jaye bhid ke bich akela, the verse goes, "I think of you, and amid a crowd, I feel alone." Like many great cities, New York offers that gift of being alone in a crowd; today, it is the other way round – you walk alone on the city's streets, your thoughts crowded by people you cannot meet or see.
Anxiety is inevitable. Calls to mental-health helplines have multiplied; an elderly man who could not take the loneliness anymore jumped off the tall building in which he lived. Physical touch has disappeared – recently, the instructions at the funeral of a friend clearly said, no hugs. Sometimes things can turn nasty: a week ago, a bunch of youngsters marched down a street singing loudly, people from high-rise apartments shouted at them, saying "Go home," and "Flatten the Curve." (The children in the apartment above mine have made a nice poster, saying "Flatten the Curve" and pasted it on their window facing the street). The youngsters were not to be deterred; they shouted back, and a slanging match followed. But it stopped there, and did not erupt in violence.

Soon, I imagine, there will be designer masks, with multicoloured patterns, and not the commonly-found grey, white, light blue, or black (mine is black).

The virus has spread alarmingly in an area where Orthodox Jews live. Some have defiantly continued to congregate, in particular at a recent funeral of a rabbi, even risking arrest. But even as some people from a religious minority disregard the law, nobody has called them anti-national. The city's brash talk-show hosts have not vilified them, or held them responsible for some collective guilt, the way Indian networks have zeroed in on Tablighi Jamaat, accusing them, and by implication all Muslims, of being super-spreaders. And while President Donald Trump refers to the scourge as the 'Chinese virus', other politicians, commentators and community leaders have acted with greater maturity and responsibility, although there have been a few cases of Chinese Americans being racially abused, including some in New York.
Uncharacteristically, most New Yorkers have become obedient. They stand six feet apart in queues in front of pharmacies, complying with instructions from grocery stores which insist that no more than 25 or 50 customers can be inside at a given time. From mid-March supermarkets announced that for about an hour each morning they would open only for senior citizens, thus protecting them from more crowded alleys and ensuring that they get what they want before the shelves are emptied. At the liquor store near my apartment, run by a Chinese family, only five people are allowed in at a time and nobody jumps the queue.
People move aside for oncoming pedestrians, lest they might get too close, and nod as if to indicate it is nothing personal. It is a nod, and not a smile, because more and more of us are now wearing masks. The authorities initially said that masks were not necessary, partly because there was a severe shortage of the state-of-the-art N95 respirators, which were needed more urgently for the first respondents and healthcare staff at hospitals. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention more recently encouraged everyone to wear one, even if it was a bandana, or stitched at home. And companies like New Balance and Brooks Brothers have retooled their assembly lines and begun making masks. Soon, I imagine, there will be designer masks, with multicoloured patterns, and not the commonly-found grey, white, light blue, or black (mine is black).

Uncharacteristically, most New Yorkers have become obedient.

The humbling civility which I had seen in New York in the days after 9/11 (when I used to visit the city from London, where I lived then) has remained; it is combined with a new fragility. This is a tough town, as the state's Governor Andrew Cuomo called it in a recent video, which has been seen by millions on the internet. But its toughness has fragility and a human core. It is facing another severe test. (Cuomo's brother Chris, a leading newscaster, recently revealed he was infected and later posted a spirited message saying how he fought the virus).
My friend, the writer and photographer Abeer Hoque, who lives in Queens, wrote on her personal Facebook page (I quote with her permission): "Every evening at 7 pm, there is a minute of clapping and cheering and air horns. We stand at the window and cheer along and I imagine I'm clapping directly for Elmhurst Hospital, less than a mile from where we live. I can hear the sirens almost all the time. When I don't, I worry I'm getting used to it."
The crucial difference between Abeer's gesture and of many others in the five boroughs of the city (as well as my neighbours on the streets I used to live on in London until last September), and the mass applause in India in late March, is this: no political leader asked the people to step out and applaud the health workers. It was, and remains, a spontaneous act, not contrived, and it is now a ritual. It was initiated by a few volunteers, with politicians irrelevant in that choreography. Not everyone does it, and those who don't, aren't heckled either.
Those health-workers are heroes. Four Seasons Hotel was the first among other New York businesses to open its doors to health-workers who would otherwise have to commute long distances daily to reach their hospitals. But there are other heroes too – the scientists untangling the mystery of the virus, trying to figure out how to tame it; the sanitation workers who turn up dutifully twice a week, emptying overflowing garbage bags into large trucks which swallow the refuse; the folks at cash registers, standing behind plexiglass or makeshift plastic curtains, wearing gloves to receive cash or card and return change at grocery stores and pharmacies; men and women making deliveries to doorsteps, leaving parcels on the ground to avoid even inadvertent physical touch.
"Every night, I wake before dawn, and I can't go back to sleep because I'm wondering how Ester and Jasmine, who worked at the laundromat are doing, or Boris the confident cobbler, or the guy at the liquor store who is a veritable mixologist. How are they, and all those essential people, those not getting much deserved hazard pay or protective gear, but still showing up every day? How are they feeding their families? Surviving?" Abeer adds.
New York has discovered new heroes, in a city where living and making it is itself heroic.
When will we be able to go out again, sit in cafes and restaurants, visit bars, see great art in the city's museums, squeeze our way into subway trains, and hug our friends and loved ones we haven't seen in weeks? There are no answers now, but what the people who live in this tough town know for sure is that this too shall pass.
It will be strangely comforting to put aside the masks and gloves, and ignore the sirens again. Harder will be to erase the memory of the place, the time, and the lives lost.
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Himal Southasian