A version of this five-part post was published in April 2020, in New Zealand Doctor.
You would think that losing a one-hour-each-way commute would save some time. But it turns out I accomplish much less. My coworker says we should all take seriously the mental health impact. But what does ‘take seriously’ even look like these days? I am distracted by three or four things during the time it takes to cross the room for some other purpose. It’s like that all day. Anxiety, it turns out, looks a lot like A.D.D.
I work for a non-profit, Harlem Empowerment Project, and in normal times teach English to public school parents and other immigrants in East Harlem elementary schools.
In the first weeks of working from home, I spent a lot of time reading conflicting articles about keeping safe from Covid19, the international spread of the virus, the medical shortages, projections and the spectrum of governmental responses. The same as everyone else. I was so angry with the president and his cronies that I was sure hypertension was right around the next corner.
The evening of the day that my organization cancelled classes, my wife Vienna, who was healthcare proxy for her 96-year-old friend and neighbor, Juanita Alexander, got a call from Juanita’s rest home. They would close indefinitely to visitors after midnight. So we hot-footed it over there to see her.
Two weeks later, the rest home called to say Juanita had a high temperature. The next day, they took her to hospital. We could not visit her.
“How about if we can get hold of full protective gear?” I asked.
“I’m very sorry, no,” said the receptionist.
We could have called if Juanita had been in better cognitive shape, or if she had ever allowed medics to remove the impacted wax from her ears. (She was extremely stubborn). It was before the rush on the hospitals, so a doctor called Vienna every day. Juanita was not strong, one warned, and didn’t have much to fight with; she was getting equal care even though she was old; her temperature went down and up again; she would not respond except to open her eyes; should they do palliative care?; she started having breathing problems; should they intubate?; they would like to suggest hospice care. Then she was gone—she died in her sleep, they said.
She had lived and worked in Harlem her entire adult life, quitting her retail pharmacy job when she turned 90. Born in South Carolina during the height of the second Ku Klux Klan, she lived long enough to see a Black president and yet, after almost a century, no one was allowed to sit by her bed in her last days. No one could hold her hand and say they loved her as she passed away.
Covid-19 and Vegetables
When I listen to what the president says and how he says it, when I read about his actions and obstructions, I am filled with rage. So many thousands of preventable deaths. So many dying alone. Conversations with my brother in England or my parents in New Zealand devolve into my ranting about the mounting outrages from the White House. He cared only about his election prospects and his personal profit and made no effort to hide it. So I stop doing the news. My blood pressure goes down a bit. I get snippets from Vienna, who listens to Governor Cuomo’s daily press conferences in addition to reading stories linked to Facebook posts. When Trump boasts about his ratings being higher than the reality show, The Bachelor, she loses it and starts ranting to me.
I try to do 15 minutes of yoga in the mornings, I planned to meditate twice a day. That lasted two days. Most days I get out for a walk in a nearby park. It has been an early, but spectacular spring. In the early days, they advised against masks, but now they say cover your mouth and nose in case you are a carrier. When I go out, I take the stairs to avoid elevator doors or buttons, and to open the outside door of my building I carry a folded paper towel, which I immediately toss out.
I avoid grocery shopping, but since delivery services are overwhelmed, every now and then you do have to venture out. I used to prefer arugula in bunches and mushrooms that I could choose myself, but now, if it was picked and packed in a sealed plastic box five days ago in California, that’s my top choice–with a pain in my heart for the oceans. And never mind recycle bags, I’ll pay my quarter for a paper bag.
Bringing groceries home feels risky because so many people have touched or breathed over your food or your bags, most recently the shelf-stockers, other shoppers and the cashier. I have an exorcism protocol. I let the apartment door slam behind me without locking. I drop my keys next to the bottle of alcohol to be cleaned later along with the lock and door handle. I kick off my sneakers using feet only, put down the bags in the kitchen and go wash my hands before touching the zip on my jacket. I change out of my outside clothes and drape them over my outside-clothes chair, then wash hands again before re-dressing in inside clothes.
Then there are the veggies. I lay out tea towels on the bench and open each plastic box (sorry again, oceans), empty the arugula, mushrooms, etc. onto the tea towels, drop each plastic container by the door and wash hands before wrapping the greens and shrooms and putting them in plastic bags I already have. Limes, beetroots, red peppers, tomatoes, avocados, sweet potatoes are all thoroughly scrubbed with biodegradable dish detergent. I pause at the lettuce and cilantro. How neurotic is that? But yes, I admit, I wash them in suds too. No longer suffering from A.D.D., now I’m obsessive-compulsive.
Covid-19 and Death
People joke that every time they clear their throat, they worry that they have caught the virus. I myself have had a dry cough since February, my first experience of a dry cough. A couple of times before shelter-in, I had to stop teaching to get water because the cough-tickle wouldn’t stop. After we halted classes, I came down with a cold that lasted about ten days.
“Don’t worry, I don’t have a temperature,” I told everyone. But I thought I’d check it out after I woke a couple of mornings with sweat-soaked sheets. My 25-year-old thermometer didn’t work, unsurprisingly, and the guy at the pharmacy shrugged and said they had been trying to get a hold of more thermometers for weeks. I found some on Amazon, but delivery was six weeks out. Otherwise, I had a bit of a headache, but not excruciating as people describe, and I was extremely tired. The cough, along with a tight chest, continued after the cold cleared up. Spring allergies, I wondered, but why would they have started in mid winter?
The obvious resolution would be a test. But there are no tests for non-celebrities and non-cops. There are often no tests for highly symptomatic people (in the world’s largest economy, mind you). And I would not go anywhere near a hospital unless I were already on death’s door.
The problem is that Vienna is prone to bronchitis and pneumonia. If I passed the Coronavirus to her, it could kill her so I stay in a different apartment. We speak on the phone and occasionally on Zoom, but in order to see each other, one of us takes a bus or subway to the other and we take a walk together keeping six feet apart and wearing a mask. We might sit on either end of a park bench and chat.
Buses are now free, but because the front third of the bus is roped off for the protection of the driver, they get crowded very quickly and it’s impossible to keep social distance. The subway is not free, but I prefer to pay for the extra space. Riders are respectful these days and most wear masks and sometimes latex gloves. Transit workers have been hit hard with the virus, with their 36 dead memorialized on the union website along with sharp criticism about how long it took to get PPE. The union is largely made up of people of color and there is a great deal of public anger about the disproportional deaths of people of color.
My own union, the United Federation of Teachers, reports 61 deaths since March 16.
About 120 death workers and US soldiers work around the clock to pick up as many as 280 bodies a day from New York City homes, according to The New York Times. In the first eight days of April, 1,891 people died at home or in the streets, many of Covid-19. Prior to the pandemic, the city buried about 25 people a week in a potters field on Hart’s Island, Bronx. Now it is about 25 a day. On an individual level, a friend of a friend calls 15 funeral homes a day, trying to get one to pick up his late wife from the hospital morgue.
Covid-19, Immigrants and Prisoners
I call and text my students to keep in touch and share information about free food and resources. One young Mexican mother was hospitalized for five days with Covid-19, but made it home in one piece, and an older Ecuadorian student has a police officer son who tested positive, but suffered only mild symptoms. He will quarantine in his room in a small Spanish Harlem apartment for two weeks after he recovers.
Financially, my students have taken a big hit. The majority are mothers from Central America, Yemen or Bangladesh. Pre-virus, some worked part time in laundromats or as cleaners and most have partners who worked low wage jobs in restaurants, delis, food delivery or driving. Very few have any income now. Those who don’t have work papers cannot access unemployment insurance despite having paid taxes, nor can they benefit from the $1200 or $600 promised by the federal stimulus package. New York State put the brakes on evictions for three months, but at the end of three months, the accumulated rent will come due. Most are living on savings with the entire family holed up in tiny apartments. They don’t take their kids out even for a social-distanced walk and prefer that their husbands do not try for the delivery jobs that have opened up with CVS and Amazon. Parents act as teacher’s aides as they navigate Google Classroom with multiple children’s lessons in a language they don’t understand well. When I asked if they wanted to continue English classes remotely, many said they were too overwhelmed. On the bright side, this role gives them a far more authentic English language learning experience than I could ever have provided.
Fortunately, a variety of non-profit soup kitchens and food delivery for old or sick people are expanding. The Department of Education now offers its free school meals program to adults as well as children. Anyone can pick up three grab-and-go meals at a nearby school on weekday mornings. Showing ID is not required, which is significant for undocumented immigrants who want to avoid being a “public charge”. The food is highly processed, but has vegetarian and halal options and at least people need not go hungry Monday through Friday.
I have two formerly-incarcerated friends who are campaigning to release older prison inmates. There are currently 43,000 people in New York State prisons, disproportionately people of color because structural racism is an abhorrent fact of life here. The rate of recidivism is extremely low for people who are freed when over fifty years old, and this is exactly the group most at risk from the virus. Governor Cuomo, formerly much criticized by liberals, has gained credibility for his measured daily press conferences and serious treatment of the pandemic. His major blind spot, however, is the incarcerated, whom he is treating as disposable non-people. He has the power to give clemency and save lives and he refuses to use it.
The prisons are petri dishes for the Coronavirus. Imprisoned elders are at an extremely high risk due to age and years of substandard food and healthcare inside. They can not maintain 6 feet of social distance, and they have limited or no access to hand sanitizer, masks and in some cases soap and water. Whatever crime he or she (may have) committed many years ago did not incur the death penalty, so keeping them locked up and risking their lives is criminally negligent on a colossal scale.
I call the Governor every day as part of the #LetThemGo! #ClemencyCoast2Coast campaign, which is starting to break through the silence. Now reporters are asking about it at the daily press conference.
Keep Calm and Covid-19
To create a sea wall against distractions, infuriating news updates, worrying personal anecdotes, myriad working-from-home tasks and general agitation, I have instituted three habits. Every day at two o’clock, a Pennsylvania artist friend and I have an “Art-Stop” appointment. She sketches for half an hour while I write. And so far I haven’t missed a day. That sounds like very little when I’m shut up in here all day and all night, but it is a relief to have a short creative commitment and it does accumulate.
Secondly, I participate in an international group of several thousand who, led by Yiyun Li and A Public Space, read thirty minutes a day of ‘War and Peace’ and post comments on Instagram or Twitter using #TolstoyTogether. Not the dense “work of great literature” that I feared, the book reminds me of a Sunday night TV drama with great characters. A lot of them.
Number three is dancing at Club Quarantine to R&B, disco and old school hip-hop along with over a hundred thousand others. It’s hosted by Instagram sensation DJ D-Nice, whose theme song is Sister Sledge’s Thinking of You. “Without love, there’s no reason to live…”