Only Sirens Puncture New York City's Grudging Silence

As we watch the number of deaths rise, we can only bring ourselves to ask one question: why has this city been so badly impacted by the outbreak?

Washington Heights in Northern Manhattan has been our home for more than a decade now.

Friends had said that this neighbourhood never sleeps as there are music and gatherings till late at night. While bars or clubs don’t define this part of Manhattan, this neighbourhood is the perfect example of families sprawling into the sidewalk as an extension of their small apartments to reclaim the city.

Sometimes, the residents in our previous apartment building would bring their chairs downstairs or sit on the massive staircase and catch up or occasionally play cards. Our parents, visiting from India, would do their yoga in the park and sit and read books on the bench. Barbecues would be set up on the sidewalk across the street and sometimes there even were TV screenings of a basketball game by a group of young men congregated on the next block.

Spanish music blared through the speakers at times as people danced in the square in the summer. Even when we never fully experience all that the city has to offer, the vibrancy, the subway, the parks and a feeling of being at home always keep us going. In the time of COVID-19, when social distancing is at its peak and the city labours under the constant rise in the number of infections and deaths, and we stepped out just once briefly in the last fortnight (as we teach remotely), we wonder if our city and neighbourhood will be transformed forever.

As we watch the staggering numbers of deaths and infections in New York City, and friends ask us if we can feel the virus inching closer, we can only bring ourselves to ask one question: why has this city been so badly impacted by the outbreak? The failure to deal with the outbreak will undoubtedly draw much scrutiny and hopefully multiple commissions of inquiry. But as residents of the city who have closely watched the unfolding of the government’s response, we can only share our initial impressions.

The political leadership both in New York City – Mayor Bill De Blasio – and New York State – Governor Andrew Cuomo – were caught completely unprepared as the virus ravaged the city and the adjoining areas like wildfire. Undoubtedly, the epic failure of the federal agencies and the Trump administration to roll out COVID-19 diagnostic tests when they were critically needed crippled the ability of all cities and states to identify and isolate the infected individuals – which was perhaps the best way to contain the virus.

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But NYC, one of the most densely populated cities struggled to decide when to shut down – the only tool available to contain the spread of the virus in the absence of widespread testing. By the second week of March, there were hundreds of novel coronavirus infections right outside NYC in New Rochelle but the mayor insisted on keeping the largest school district with 1.1 million students open, claiming that young people were not vulnerable to the virus.

The mayor also said that closing down schools would deprive students of low-income families of free food. However, the mayor ignored the fact that even if young people were asymptomatic or only showed mild symptoms, they could spread the virus in the larger population. It was only after several days of intense debate about the closure of schools that the mayor made the decision.

There were similar delays when it came to shutting down restaurants and bars in the city and ordering a statewide stay-at-home order that the governor preferred to call a “pause” lest it sounded too harsh. Looking back now at the first two weeks of March, it is very clear that political leadership in New York City and the state failed in responding to the pandemic in a timely manner that could have softened some of the serious blows that the city received.

While NYC leadership struggled to shut down the city, President Trump, for a while, assured Americans that the coronavirus was more like the seasonal flu that killed thousands of people every year. The New York City mayor and the state governor have now pooled all their energies and resources in to lead the effort in coordinate with the federal government.

Mukul Kesavan recently mentioned the inability of the US to pick one coherent policy from the experiences of the East Asian countries thanks to its narcissistic exceptionalism. Indeed Governor Cuomo in early March said, “I am not going to imprison anyone in the State of New York,” Cuomo said. “I am not going to do martial law in state of New York. That’s not going to happen.”

It was striking to hear such statements about NYC. The city has a history of extremely invasive policing practices. But of course, in those contexts, it is always people of colour who face the brunt of stop-and-frisk policies, fines for subway fare evasion and this is without even considering one of the most ill reputed prisons in Rikers Island, where coronavirus continues to spread amongst those incarcerated for minor offences.

Also read: Rethinking Education in the Age of the Coronavirus

The oft-repeated claim that democracies don’t police or track cell phone data belies the history of surveillance and targeting. Yet, even as we write this, New York Police Department officers are among the first responders impacted by this virus – seven officers have died and almost 2,000 have tested positive – as the state has failed to protect not only its citizens but also its first responders including paramedics, firefighters, and Metropolitan Transit Authority workers.

A person with a walker crosses 42nd Street in a mostly deserted Times Square following the outbreak of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, US, March 23, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Carlo Allegri

The pandemic above all points to the fragility of the US health care system not only in terms of access but also its lack of emergency infrastructure to deal with an outbreak of this scale. The most severely impacted are of course the health care workers, including doctors and nurses, who lack the basic personal protective equipment (PPE) and the support they need to continue their relentless fight against the virus even as they live with the constant fear of getting infected themselves and further infecting their families.

As the time of writing, the death toll in NYC stood at 2,470 with 72,000 cases of infection. However, it is hard to measure the actual spread given the limited numbers of tests and many people staying asymptomatic or showing mild symptoms. The virus has ravaged the city: the blaring of ambulance sirens, no matter which part of the city you live in, has become a constant reminder of the outbreak.

A pandemic could be a great equaliser in terms of the danger it poses to the entire population but NYC has seen low income and immigrant neighbourhoods facing devastation at a much greater scale. The ‘epicentre of the epicentre’ of the COVID-19 outbreak is Elmhurst in Queens borough, the immigrant hub of NYC. Parts of Queens such as Astoria, Jackson Heights, Corona, and East Elmhurst have been most impacted.

These areas have a large population of low income, non-white immigrants that are employed in the service industries such as construction, domestic work, restaurant, and taxi. They are more likely to go out for work even while the city has put on pause given their economic precarity and the nature of their work.

The pandemic has shed a light on the deep inequality that defines this city. According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, only one in five African American workers and roughly one in six Hispanic workers are able to work from home. Many of them work as grocery, home delivery, and restaurant delivery workers and are considered essential during the period of the shutdown reminding one of the privilege linked to social distancing.

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Even as ambulance sirens continue to be the only vehicles we hear on the eerily calm roads of our city, we remind ourselves of a very New York moment that was shared more recently about our neighbourhood. When a couple – Reilly Jennings and Amanda Wheeler – not wanting to wait until after the pandemic decided to get married to each other on the street while their friend officiated the wedding from a window much above and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez was aptly mentioned.

Jinee Lokaneeta and Sangay Mishra teach Political Science at Drew University, New Jersey.