New York, of all places, should have seen it coming.
The melting pot. The city that never sleeps. The concrete jungle where dreams are made manifest in structures of shiny metal.
Say ‘New York’ and the mind conjures up crammed subway cars and swarming sidewalks, shared taxi rides and shoebox cafes.
Eight million movers and shakers live in an area totalling 480 square kilometres. And 55 million more visit annually from faraway places, carrying faraway contagions.
You don’t need a medical degree to see why the crown jewel of American cities is an infectious disease’s idea of Disneyland.
At the time of writing, more than 51,810 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in New York City.
More than 1,375 had died, which accounts for nearly a quarter of the 6,055 total deaths in the United States.
Experts say it could be another three weeks until we see the peak toll. Journalists who committed to calling it the “coronavirus epicentre of the US” are now testing out “epicentre of the world”.
A month after its first coronavirus casualty, New York is seeing clearly what it missed before — and watching the virus seize control over a place once defined by freedom.
A lack of medical supplies is the most pressing problem
New York’s army of medical professionals knew right away they weren’t ready for the inevitable attack.
More than 11,000 of the most critical patients crammed into hospitals that collectively, only contain 3,000 intensive care beds.
Supplies dwindled so rapidly that doctors have had to ration treatment and make calls as to who should receive it.
Three nurses themselves have died from a lack of protective equipment and nearly 200 are sick.
Aline Reich is one of them. The paramedic from the Bronx tested positive for COVID-19 after weeks of seeing an uptick in cardiac arrest calls and now is quarantined at home with two young children, struggling to breathe.
“We just have to be very close to patients to assess,” she said.
“But we’re literally out of everything we should have to protect ourselves. We’re dropping our standards just to do what we need to do.”
“Every day, our lives and our families’ lives are at risk. I hear a lot of people saying, ‘You signed up for this,’ but I don’t think we signed up for deciding who should live and who should die.”
Ms Reich said she planned to resume working after two weeks without symptoms. In her 12 years as a medical professional, she has never seen a situation with so many unknowns.
“We live in a place where we feel we can pass anything, but this is coming to get everyone,” she said. “This is not going to stop. Honestly, I’m scared.”
Mayor Bill DeBlasio declared this Sunday (local time) to be “D-Day” because the city expected to run out of key supplies, including live-saving ventilators.
Yet New York is only just now discovering the full extent of who needs saving.
It was four weeks ago that Governor Andrew Cuomo first publicly called on the federal government to provide functioning test kits after the first ones came back inconclusive.
With New York being the kind of place that takes matters into its own hands, the state swiftly authorised private labs to do testing and asked private companies to design and distribute 500,000 kits. The first batch only arrived this week.
As of Wednesday (local time), New York state had tested 220,880 individuals, far more than any other place in the US.
Some say that the relatively high testing rates inflate the sense that New York is far worse off than other US locations.
Local authorities say they’re not trying to hide the reality, and in a city where space is a premium, they couldn’t even if they tried.
Federal emergency teams began assembling tents for field hospitals in Central Park and converting old warehouses and conference centres into makeshift infirmaries.
A 1,000-bed Navy hospital ship also arrived in the city this week, floating down the Hudson River like a beacon of hope as hundreds of onlookers broke social distancing guidelines to watch.
Bob Cooley, a 21-year-old New York-based photographer, was one of those compelled to capture the boat’s arrival.
He’d been tracking the ship online for the three weeks it took to gather a crew and sail over.
When it finally swept into the bay, he stood on a pier near the Statue of Liberty and tried to keep his distance from 30 strangers.
But even standing three metres away from the crowd, it was impossible not to feel a sense of solidarity that has been absent since the pandemic’s onset.
“Initially it was just a boat that was coming in,” Mr Cooley said.
“But then you saw the medical professionals actually on the boat, standing in a row across the top. That’s when everyone started cheering and waving and applauding.
“It was the first time I’d seen people breaking the silence of social distancing … there was this sense of human connection that we needed.”
But two days after the USNS Comfort docked, reports emerged that it wouldn’t be accepting coronavirus patients.
In fact, only 20 non-COVID patients have been admitted for care thanks to the same bureaucratic measures that led to New York’s shortage of supplies and space in the first place.
The US Navy says the 49 rules around patient admittance are unlikely to change.
For now, the mighty ship still sways in the harbour, cavernously empty, a spectre of the hope it used to be.
Not even morgues can conceal the casualties from coronavirus
Elsewhere in the city, the prevailing symbols of the crisis were grim from the start.
A new fixture throughout the city is the presence of “mobile morgues” — refrigerator trucks stationed outside hospitals to store corpses.
Alix Monteleone can see one below her third-floor apartment in Brooklyn. She and her fiance first noticed it a week ago, and realised its purpose when they overheard a nurse say, ‘Yo, there’s mad bodies in there’.
At first, the truck was totally exposed, and her view was crystal clear. The hospital has since constructed fences and awnings to give the dead a bit more privacy, but Ms Monteleone can still hear the electric hum of refrigeration and the clatter of construction crews building shelves.
“If we’re seeing this chaos outside the hospital, my heart breaks for what must be happening inside,” she said.
Those 45 morgues can hold 3,600 bodies collectively. Eighty-five additional trucks are being sent to the city this week because the death toll is expected to exceed 16,000.
Ms Monteleone has already noticed another truck added to the liminal space below her window. The shock of it all is starting to fade.
“My fiance has lived in this apartment for seven years. For New York standards, it’s very large. The rent is right. We have so many windows, which was a blessing up until now,” she said.
“The prospect of moving is just not on the horizon … This is just a reality we’re having to adjust to.”
New York’s way of life will never be the same
Ms Monteleone is just one of many who are surprised by the speed at which the city has been turned upside down
It wasn’t even three weeks ago that New Yorkers were ignoring early guidance and kept doing what they do best — getting from point A to point C.
On the weekend of March 14, hordes of New Yorkers were still bar-hopping, brunching and buzzing through their daily routines with such dedication that one writer chose the blunt phrase, “gathering in groups right now is selfish,” as a headline.
Early data comparing New York to San Francisco suggests that the five-day lag in declaring shelter-in-place orders led to 15 times the number of infections.
Many of the same New Yorkers who defied those early warnings may now lose the income to support the social lifestyle they had before.
The city is yet to release its latest unemployment numbers, but a website used to file claims across the state saw a 900 per cent increase in traffic over a five-day period at the end of March.
It caused the site to crash and lead to a subsequent 16,000 per cent rise in phone calls to the department’s hotline.
The governor ordered a 90-day moratorium on evictions because an estimated 40 per cent of city residents won’t be able to pay rent this month.
Andrea Brown, who moved to Williamsburg from Sydney about 10 months ago, is one of those residents who’s negotiating with her landlord this week after seeing a pay cut.
“We don’t want to leave, but we don’t want to be paying this rate for the next six months with my new salary,” she said.
“We pay $US4,100 ($6,841) per month [for a one-bedroom] … it’s a big financial burden in terms of being able to save for, say, a flight back to Australia if need be.”
Others assessed the situation and decided it was indeed time to leave the city, taking the threat of the virus to other parts of the country or the world, without promising to return.
This spreads like ‘fire through dry grass with wind behind it’
As the most densely populated city in America, New York may have been uniquely vulnerable to coronavirus, but there was nothing unique about the way it met the threat. It’s merely a microcosm of America’s overall response to the virus.
“Other states should be looking to us because we’re the canary in the coal mine,” Mr Cuomo said solemnly this week.
“This is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
“This spreads like fire through dry grass with a wind behind it … You will see this move across the country. New York is just first.”
We are all vulnerable to this virus.
I couldn’t protect my little brother. He couldn’t protect himself. And it’s scary.
I’m worried about him just as we are all worried about the people we love.
I love you, little brother. Stay strong.
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) April 1, 2020
This week, the US shifted its attention away from the navy ship and the mobile morgues to watch New Orleans surface as a rising hotspot. Then it was Chicago.
The rise of cases in Detroit, Michigan has authorities particularly worried because they’re paired with economic stagnation.
But the same could be said for the numbers in Florida, with nearly a quarter of the population over 60 years of age.
Texas is looking shaky. New Jersey is getting bad. And Wyoming is the only state not to have a fatality.
New York may have been caught off guard as the first, but it knows now it won’t be the last, and that knowledge weighs heavy on its mind.
The city that thinks it’s the greatest in the world wants you to know there’s no guarantee it’ll be exceptional on this one.
As one resident put it, “Right now, we’re all neighbours.”