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  Number 467 | Junio 2020
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United States

A Guatemalan’s chronicle of the April that changed New York

How did COVID-19 start in New York City? As described by this observer who knows tempests, it “spread like the raindrops of a storm announced in the distance.” His empathetic snapshots show how last century’s trade center became this century’s coronavirus center in the April that changed The City.

Sergio Palencia

The night of Sunday April 5, we received the news that a young student of mine and his mother were both infected with COVID-19. Half an hour later a young woman wrote that her mother had died of the virus. The next day, yet another New York student wrote me that his father had died two weeks ago and then told me he too was sick. A colleague was prompted to write this collective message: “Prepare yourselves because it’s possible that soon you will also have students in this same situation.”

She wasn’t exaggerating. We’d been hearing ambulances since a week earlier, contrasting with the otherwise relatively empty streets. People come out to jog, mothers to teach their children to skate, others to shop with masks on, others just to applaud the night. How was the onslaught of this pandemic experienced? What have these days been like in a city that went from being the 20th century’s trade center to the Coronavirus center in the 21st? This is a chronicle of what I have seen during April in New York.

The most affected

In this city of 8,398,748 inhabitants, the pandemic spread like the raindrops of a storm announced in the distance. By April 16, New York alone had 40% of the total deaths in the USA: 11,586 people, with almost 214,000 reported cases. As tends to happen, the most affected groups are the poorest, the historically marginalized or undocumented immigrants.

Up until April 8, the numbers of infected were undifferentiated, abstract. That day in a press conference, Mayor Bill di Blasio confirmed the division by ethnic communities: of the total infected by the virus in the metropolis, 22.8% were Hispanic and 19.8% were Afro-American, for a combined total of 43%. The most affected neighborhoods were Jackson Heights and Corona in Queens, and residential neighborhoods with small businesses, along with working class barrios in the center and northern part of the Bronx.

The pandemic arrives

At the end of February, a group of people from a synagogue in Westchester, a county next to the Bronx had been reported as infected with coronavirus. It all still seemed far away, but prevention started nonetheless. In Astoria, a neighborhood in Queens, the borough I live in, a Catholic priest of Italian origin asked his parishioners to avoid touching each other during the giving of peace. It wasn’t difficult for New Yorkers who are accustomed to giving peace from afar, just raising their hand. Not so for Mexicans, Colombians and Central Americans who are used to embracing.

I sensed the first signs of the pandemic by March 6. That day, like all other Fridays, I took the subway line 4 to go teach in the Bronx. The loudspeaker at the 59th street station in Manhattan was recommending hygiene measures both in Spanish and English. It was about 4 in the afternoon. When the train pulled in full of African, Dominican and Mexican construction workers, I was barely able to squeeze in, drop my backpack on the floor and grab onto the vertical pole. I thought of the consequences of a single infected person riding the subway during peak hours. It wasn’t until Monday March 9 that we personally heard about the first case of coronavirus: a student from Columbia University. It announced the closure of the installations.

Schools close down

The next day, Tuesday March 10, my bike got a flat tire and I had to take it on the train. I was going to teach two classes, one on anthropology and the other on sociology, to New Yorkers from 19 different countries around the world. I noticed the first group was calm, telling me that other professors were already changing their classes to online mode. In the afternoon, in contrast, I saw as soon as I arrived that the 39 students were talking in groups, non-stop, about the coronavirus. We tried to come to order to discuss the issue. They were angry with the university because others such as The New School, New York University and Fordham had already suspended classes.

We then turned to discussing the concept of ethos in Max Weber. It would be our last face-to-face class. At one point a young man coughed and I observed a wave of nervous laughter all around, like a chain reaction. We agreed to keep in touch.

The next morning I went to a Serbian hairdresser in Queens. I was surprised to see how public preschools had children under age 7 doing physical education.

The announcement finally came in the afternoon: classes in public universities were suspended, not only for a week, as we had thought, but for the whole semester.

The closure would only be for students and professors, however, not for library and administration staff, much less for cleaning and security staff. Mayor Di Blasio gave a press conference assuring that public elementary and high schools, transportation and hospitals would continue working. Disconcerting images of Italy were circulating by then. New York’s lockdown wasn’t happening. It was gradual and full of exceptions. Di Blasio maintained the St. Patrick’s Day parade, trying to avoid at all cost a decrease in the city’s rhythm.

We started hearing about students or professors with COVID-19 in a casual manner, without any sort of centralized news: one student near the campus on Columbus Circle, another two in south Brooklyn and another from the Lexington campus. Everyone was counting the famous nine days for symptoms to appear, not knowing for sure if that was true. Nor was there clarity, until April 6, whether only those infected should be wearing masks, or only the healthy, or everybody. Koreans and Chinese residents in the city had been leading the rest in wearing masks since February. A Korean friend only half-jokingly claimed it was cultural to wear a mask in her country.

Atypical friendliness
mixed with great fear

Two weeks earlier, we’d gone to the university to complete some paperwork and borrow some books. The usual environment of indifference, so typical of New York, with everyone in their own world, had amazingly beam subverted. It was a surprising moment, between expectations and the emotion of something new that came to break daily routines. Secretaries and heads of human resources, unlike their normal sense of place, would talk with students. People on the streets would look at those they walked by. Normally serious waiters were now smiling. At least that was my impression. Something in the way we relate to each other had snapped. This had started by Friday, March 13, with the news that administration work would also change to online. Amidst this new warmth, though, there were also traces of great fear.

Between March 27 and April 3, new cases increased to up to 10,000 a day, mostly in Manhattan. According to a map of COVID-19’s evolution in the USA, the number of deaths reported in New York state increased from 618 on March 27 to 4,789 on April 6, seven times more in only eleven days.

Signs against xenophobia

As in many parts of the world, massive and intense hoarding soon took place. In the town of Hampton, local people were outraged when well-to-do New Yorkers fleeing the city to their mansions, left all the markets without vegetables. On March 19 The New York Post reported: “Coronavirus leads to class warfare in the Hamptons.”

On Thursday, March 12, two Korean women were beaten by women accusing them of bringing the virus into the city. Restaurants in Koreatown were desolate and signs against xenophobia appeared in the Herald Square station. Some young Asian women in Flushing feared going out alone and being victims of racist rage, being held responsible for the pandemic.

Many young people got tired of staying home with nothing to do. They longed for in-person sessions and getting on with their homework during periods between classes. Some had worked half-time as bilingual waiters, but their shifts were cut back to only a couple of days a week. In Astoria, there were photocopied posters on the corners offering help for the elderly or for those feeling lonely. Solidarity networks were set up among neighbors and others put up ads seeking to make some money walking dogs.

Empty streets in the
“city that never sleeps”

Manhattan’s major avenues were almost empty. Only a few went out jogging or biking in Central Park. There were no vehicles and only one or two pedi-cabs waiting for clients. Farther inside the park, Samaritan’s Purse, an Evangelical organization, built a field hospital for those infected with COVID-19. Before entering, patients are asked to sign a “Statement of Faith” taking a position against same-sex marriage and abortion.

About 12 blocks south of the park, the famous and normally bustling Times Square had no people. I saw only two couples and a police officer. The huge electronic news headline screens announced a possible drop in the real estate market, a real drop in the stock market on Wall Street and support for people on the frontline of the emergency. Like a commercial oracle, the photograph from Times Square presaged the end of beauty.

The subway stations in Queens had just been cleaned and smelled of detergent. Very few people were taking the trains and the sidewalks, once so full of people like crashing atoms, were now empty.

The big generational experience left by this pandemic is the image of emptiness. My cousin in Washington DC thought the same as many students: this is like the movie “The Walking Dead.” Other people alluded to a similar experience: the morning of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Andrew Cuomo: The new hero

As figures increased, Di Blasio started to receive harsh criticism in the newspapers. The New York Times digital front page showed New York and Washington as the “epicenter states” of the pandemic, a situation that changed during the next two weeks when the neighboring state of New Jersey appeared on the scene.

Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, started assuming his position. He called for all “non-essential” businesses to close and publicly contradicted Di Blasio and later President Trump. And as often tends to happen in US politics, the media soon declared Cuomo the next national hero. He soon he began appearing in presidential polls even though he wasn’t a candidate. Some compared him to Rudy Giuliani, the take-charge governor at the time of the attacks on the Twin Towers.

Cuomo isn’t a stranger in New York politics. His father had also been a Democratic governor of New York, an opponent of then-President Reagan in the 1980s; considered on the one hand a savior of the bankrupt state at that time, and on the other a strong promoter of the gentrification of Black and Latino neighborhoods.

On March 28, Trump insinuated a Federal quarantine for New York. Cuomo reacted furiously, accusing him of launching a “Federal declaration of war.” Authority over the city became a three-way dispute when Mayor Di Blasio entered the fray. The quarrel between the two New York politicians reached its climax when Di Blasio declared that New York City schools would close down for the rest of 2020. Cuomo quickly refuted that, stating that it wasn’t yet known in what month schools would reopen. Historians will conclude whether this fight was to sustain state health policies or to take political advantage of the crisis.

Within two weeks, Cuomo had succeeded in positioning himself in the city’s collective self-image as its protector. When the state of Rhode Island decided to use the National Guard to seek out New Yorkers in its territory, house to house if need be, Cuomo called the measure unconstitutional. Contrary to Di Blasio, who gave press conferences surrounded by his team, Cuomo tends to sit alone.

Pharmacies quickly ran out of masks. A pair could cost $7. Some businesses bought dozens of boxes on Internet to resell. One store’s propaganda for masks read: “For Excellent Breathability & Extra Comfort.” After constant complaints from nurses and doctors about the lack of respirators, masks and beds, Cuomo appeared in a press conference the next day, surrounded by hundreds of boxes of supplies.

Trump shoots his
own image in the foot

Trump’s bad relationship with his home town just kept getting worse. He was heavily criticized for promoting unreliable medications against COVID-19 and seeking to patent a possible German vaccine, even for moving his official residence to Florida while the pandemic was devastating New York, especially the borough where he was born, Queens. With that, Trump launched a curious counterattack. He accused the World Health Organization of not preventing the coronavirus from spreading outside of Wuhan. And as he used to do in his TV program “The Apprentice,” he decided to curtail its US financing.

“The Donald,” as he is often called in the media, sent a hospital ship named “Comfort” to Manhattan, but despite the overcrowding in hospitals, the “Comfort” only admitted 20 patients during the days of the pandemic’s exponential growth.

Cuomo led the opening of the economy in the country along with five other eastern states. Irritated by the states’ initiative, Trump said that only he had the authority to reopen the nation’s economy. “Without doubt,” he said, “it will be the biggest decision of my life.” As usual, Cuomo pounced, accusing Trump of proceeding in a dictatorial manner.

The essentials

Cuomo took the lead upon seeing his colleagues’ blunders, but an article in The Nation recalled how the governor had been behind state budget cuts for health and the closing of several hospitals. Behind the humanitarian crisis in New York are 40 years of growing privatization of public health, measures taken purportedly to resolve the 1975 fiscal crisis. Like good Neptunes, rich politicians surf on the peak of the same wave they caused.

Cuomo suspended the economic activities of “non-essential” businesses such as bars, barbershops and electronics stores. Among the essentials were pharmacies, supermarkets and restaurants with “take-out” options.

Soon the media spotlighted the importance of cashiers (mainly women) and delivery people (mostly men) during the crisis. In general, cashiers are daughters of Latino immigrants, skilled in switching from English to Spanish. Deliverymen, at least in Queens, are young men between the ages of 20 and 30 from the Mexican states of Puebla, Oaxaca and Hidalgo. They are seen circulating on fast motorbikes in sub-zero temperatures, their hands inserted into gloves embedded into the handlebars.

US citizens also make deliveries but, unlike the Latinos, they do it in cars, possibly to procure funds due to the limited affluence of Uber clients. While these essential tasks are worth extra tips, no one talks about the thousands of unsung construction workers, waitresses and busboys from Mexico and Central America who have lost their jobs.

Felipe from Chichicastenango…

Several young Guatemalan indigenous people, Mames and Kaqchikels from Huehuetenango and Chimaltenango,
work in a Korean restaurant in Midtown. One of them, Felipe, works serving water, delivering Korean salads and taking dishes to the kitchen. From the village of Agua Escondida in the Quiché municipality of Chichicastenango, Felipe told us the restaurant has been empty since March 6. He was worried that they might close down the next day, and with that would go his source of income.

On March 13, Trump confirmed the approval of $50 billion in Federal funds to fight coronavirus. Supposedly, part of the funds would go to help small businesses during the times of low sales. It’s very unlikely that this aid—thought to go to owners—will actually reach waiters, cooks, cleaning crews, delivery people of pizzerias or other restaurants. Felipe and his workmate, from Aguacatán, stopped working in mid-March.

…and Julio, one of 22 million

Julio, a Kaqchikel friend from Poaquil, was a construction worker in a building in Harlem and his situation is similar: laid off and without work. Since the construction company closed, Julio lives with his brother in an apartment they rent in West New York, New Jersey. They are living off of their savings for the moment. He told me that “If this goes on until May, things will get ugly.”

Normally he likes to go out and take pictures but he’s stopped that for now. Last weekend he got together with friends from San Martín Jilotepeque. They ate chicken soup. Of the three of them, only one still had a job, installing floors and tiles.

On April 2 the Federal government reported that 9.95 million people had applied for Federal aid, declaring themselves jobless. Two weeks later, the number went up to 22 million unemployed applicants. These are figures that don’t take into account the millions of ineligible workers.

Since March 12, stock prices on the New York and London exchanges have dropped to the lowest levels since 1987, exceeding the intensity of the 2008 crisis. After Trump’s announcement, The New York Times reported an improvement in Wall Street’s markets, but they later dropped again.

The point in common

The commercial chain first began to be interrupted in supermarkets in Washington Heights, north of Manhattan. Flour was scarce. Pizzerias, run by Mexicans, closed due to the lack of distribution of cheeses and other products. One can only imagine what it means to stop making pizzas in New York, the tip of the iceberg of products from the basic food basket.

The point in common between stock exchanges, markets and unemployed people, students and essential workers is uncertainty. On the other hand, the situation of the millionaires in the Hamptons reminds us that shortages and hoarding
not only contrast with each other, but are evidence of the breakdown of a process

Sergio Palencia Frener is a sociologist. This text first appeared in the digital publication “No ficción.”

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