My New York Today: The Sadness of COVID-19
His office, normally bustling with patients, is empty. My doctor and I sit opposite one another in Examination Room 1. He awkwardly adjusts an ill-fitting surgical mask over his gray beard as our unusually leisurely conversation drifts from my health to the pandemic and to death. His good friend is dead, another friend just recovered despite having had to go on a ventilator.
“Who would have thought we would find ourselves here?,” he asks. “My friend, the doctor who died of COVID-19, was the nicest guy you could imagine. It’s as if this virus selects for kindness.” His is the guilt of those left living. Maybe that’s why he’s still working, helping patients like me despite not having proper protective gear. He could retire, but he’s doing what he trained for, what he’s done all his adult life, even if now it might kill him.
This was the second time in a week that I’ve had direct exposure to the non-abstractness of death from COVID-19. The Visiting Nurse Service of New York is a client. They are on the front lines of this and they too are dying as they do their jobs—the job of helping those whose circumstances require outside help. They themselves need help obtaining enough protective gear for their nurses, therapists, and home health aides.
As I check the virus map each day in the New York Times, it’s hard to comprehend the sadness this data illustration represents. The numbers grow, adding zeros. Behind each zero are thousands of individual names, fascinating stories, dearly held passions, truncated hopes, an end to the delicate ripples each human life sends out into the world.
New York Today
I drove into Manhattan today from my home deep in Brooklyn. It was my first excursion since we shuttered our offices on March 12. I drove slowly and no one urged me to hurry.
The emptiness and quiet of the city was striking and unnervingly sad. Stores and restaurants shuttered, some boarded up; streets empty; a masked woman standing alone on the corner of Sullivan Street taking selfies in the dying rays of the sun—funny, but sad too. Further uptown, tall apartment buildings looking forlorn, full, one would presume, of New Yorkers bereft of the usual springtime pleasures and of work, or—as ill fortune might dictate—of a loved one.
Past clients started reaching out this week for help as they rethink their business strategies. It’s gradually settling in that there will be no snap back to normal. People are going to continue to die; this summer will be like none we can remember. This virus will haunt us for years, and we are beginning to change.
We are only at the end of the beginning of a very long game with rules that are cruel and unfair.
The loneliness, frustration and grief will maybe make us better, maybe it will temper our callousness and inattention. I’m sad for New Yorkers, but I’m proud of us too. We have so much, and sometimes it seems we can’t really be bothered to see the value of what’s out beyond the confines of our great city. We act like the woman on Sullivan Street, aglow in the last light of our capitalist glory, looking mostly admiringly at ourselves. But now we suffer, and what we suffer from is coming soon to every corner of America.
The nicest people we can imagine will die. They will mostly die alone away from families and loved ones because they cannot breathe. Their last needs, last fears, last words will be attended to by dedicated, compassionate, and overworked strangers, including nurses, doctors, health aides, administrators, and cleaning personnel—the angels of this moment.
This is a very sad day for me, for New York, and for America. We can do better. We can grow up. We can learn what it’s like to be kind and not just proud. We can be honest, fair, and more thoughtful. Maybe this plague will help us all adjust our moral compass a bit. Maybe it won’t, but I still have hope.
New Yorkers give me hope.
If you would like to help the Visiting Nurse Service of New York (a nonprofit organization) obtain the protective gear they need for their thousands of nurses, therapists, and home health aides working on the front lines in New York please visit this page.