The coronavirus pandemic has earned the adjective “biblical” in its own right. And, as in the Bible, the great Babylon of our days, New York, is going through one of the most difficult moments in its history: the number of confirmed cases already exceeds 100,000 in the state and almost 3,000 people have died. A proof that is noticeable, above all, in the most humble neighbourhoods of the city: there where the virus has hit with greater force, both in the health and in the pocket of its inhabitants.
“We have had a tremendous increase in activity,” says Melony Samuels, president of The Campaign Against Hunger (TCAH), an NGO that provides food to those most in need since 1998. “Normally we serve 250 people a day. Right now we are trying to serve 4,500 people.“
Samuels’ strategy has had to be adapted in a hurry. Before, they used to establish food distribution points. Now, given the physical distance required by the circumstances, they deliver food to the home, especially to older people. “We are aggressively raising money, recruiting volunteers, looking for bags to put food in,” says Samuels. “We have never seen anything like it. Not even during Hurricane Sandy.”
The 2012 hurricane, which destroyed 70,000 New York homes, was recorded in the city’s collective memory, like the attacks of 9/11 in the previous decade: a challenge that required the joint mobilization of neighbours and authorities, and which helped the NGOs to fine-tune their instruments and operate more flexibly.
New York, the epicenter of the epidemic
“After Hurricane Sandy, we distributed emergency meals to 64,000 older New Yorkers who had been trapped in their homes across the city,” recalls Beth Shapiro, executive director of Citymeals on Wheels, an NGO that feeds the New Yorkers of the third age. “But the Sandy only affected parts of the city. Now each of the neighbourhoods is being affected, New York, the country, the whole world,” he adds. “We have already delivered 200,000 meals and we are going to distribute 300,000 more in the coming days.”
Shapiro says that seeing the news of the pandemic in China and then in Europe, Citymeals began preparing in February “for what might happen“. They accumulated food and drew up response plans. In recent days they have doubled the warehouse staff and divided the volunteers into groups that alternate weekly. A way to better observe the symptoms if any of the delivery people fall ill. “It also has to be said that, even with all this planning, no one could imagine the size and severity of the emergency.”
Low-income neighbourhoods are also especially sensitive to volunteers and social workers since they have the highest proportion of infections. The Queens Postal District just south of La Guardia Airport, for example, has four times as many illnesses as Park Slope, the white, centralized area of Brooklyn in which Mayor Bill de Blasio lives.
“We know that in Queens many families, living in poverty, live together in tight spaces,” Dr Mitchell Katz, chief executive of the public hospital system, told Fox News. “So even though we are practising social distancing as a city, we have multiple families living together in a very small apartment. So it is very easy to understand where many of Covid’s broadcasts occur.” The most affected households in the city are those of ultra-Orthodox Jewish families, who have the highest number of children per capita and who have been more reluctant to follow the recommendations for physical distance.
In addition, wealthy households are able to endure longer confined times and order food through Amazon or FreshDirect: they have less need to be exposed to the virus. The liberal or corporate professions have also not been impacted as strongly as working-class jobs in the hospitality, entertainment or retail sector – the first to collapse.
English is not spoken in Babylon
Claire Moodey and her partner, residents of Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighbourhood, lost their jobs at the same time and now struggle to pay rent. Last week, residents of their building were invited to look for common solutions. “We wanted to open a dialogue and see if we can get together and help each other navigate right now,” he tells.
Moodey, who already participated in Occupy Sandy in 2012, a left-wing initiative to help people who had been foreclosed or evicted in the context of the hurricane, has offered to make the purchase for neighbours who need it or help with the Paperwork for those who may have language difficulties. “People speak many different languages in our building, and they probably have difficult access to reading material in these languages,” he says.
Solidarity initiatives and organizations operate in the particular fabric of New York: a variegated Babylon, with 800 languages compressed in a few neighbourhoods. Universes that live together without touching each other, with their services and their press and their traditions. Both TCAH and Citymeals on Wheels have interpreters to access Spanish, Cantonese, Russian, Hebrew or Creole-speaking homes. Languages that outperform English in many of the Brooklyn and Queens neighbourhoods.
9/11 brought catharsis, the Covid did not
Unlike 9/11, or Hurricane Sandy, the pandemic has added a new element to the challenge. It has taken away from citizens the possibility of meeting in a physical space: the magic of the catharsis effect that occurs when thousands of people agree and celebrate it ‘on the spot’, with all the ritual of mobilization, greetings and The hugs. The virus has taken the comfort of human contact.
“We have to maintain social distancing,” says Melony Samuels of TCAH. “The people to whom we deliver food know that we are going, they know where to pick it up. Right now there is no need to say anything, there are no interpreters. It is very impersonal. And it will continue to be impersonal for a season.”
Previous challenges, the bombings, the hurricanes, the recession, had failed to rip out the element of human warmth that greases the response to the catastrophe. The victims and the volunteers, in this case, remain in the darkness of their caves; they only come out wearing gloves and a mask, and any approach to a surface or a living being causes a range of ugly sensations, different degrees of repulsion.
“Citymeals has always dealt with older New Yorkers who are alone,” says Beth Shapiro. “They are people who have survived their friends, their relatives and even their children. When food is brought to them, many times the delivery person enters their houses and leaves it in the kitchen. Now they cannot. They leave it hanging on the door Before, we had a visitation program, to keep older people company, now we can’t anymore. But we called them on the phone. Social distancing has changed things radically.”