The coronavirus pandemic has earned the adjective “biblical” in its own right. And, as in the Bible, the great Babylon of our day, New York, passes 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 test that is noticeable, above all, in the most humble neighborhoods of the city: where the virus has hit the hardest, both in the health and in the pockets of its inhabitants.
“We have had a tremendous increase in activity,” says Melony Samuels, president of The Campaign Against Hunger (TCAH), an NGO that has provided food to those most in need since 1998, to El Confidencial. “We usually serve food to 250 people a day. Right now we are trying to serve 4,500 people ».
Samuels’ strategy has had to adapt hastily. Before, they used to establish food distribution points. Now, given the physical distance required by the circumstances, they deliver food at 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 collective memory of the city, as the 9/11 attacks In the previous decade: a challenge that required the joint mobilization of neighbors and authorities, and that helped NGOs to fine-tune their instruments and operate more flexibly.
New York, epicenter of the epidemic
“After Hurricane Sandy, we distributed emergency meals to 64,000 older New Yorkers who had been trapped in their homes throughout the city,” Beth Shapiro, executive director of Citymeals on Wheels, an NGO that feeds children, recalls to this newspaper. New Yorkers seniors. ‘But Sandy only affected parts of the city. Now each of the neighborhoods is being affected, New York, the country, the whole world », Add. “We have already distributed 200,000 meals and we are going to distribute 300,000 more in the coming days.”
Shapiro says that, watching the news of the pandemic in China and then in Europe, Citymeals began preparing in February “for whatever might happen.” They hoarded food and drew up response plans. In recent days they have doubled the staff of the warehouses and have divided the volunteers into groups that alternate weekly. A way to better observe the symptoms if one of the delivery men falls ill. «It must also be said that, even with all this planning, no one could have imagined the size and severity of the emergency.
Slums are also especially sensitive for volunteers and social workers, as they have the highest proportion of infections. The Queens postal district that is just south of La Guardia Airport, for example, has four times the proportion of sick people than Park Slope, the white and centered area of Brooklyn where the mayor, Bill de Blasio, lives.
“We know that many families in Queens, because of their poverty, live together in tight spaces,” Dr. Mitchell Katz, chief executive of the public hospital system, told Fox News. “So even though we are practicing social distancing as a city, we have multiple families living together in a very small apartment. So it’s very easy to understand where a lot of Covid transmissions 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 most reluctant to follow the recommendations for physical distance.
Wealthy households are also able to last longer in confinement 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 hit as hard as working-class jobs in hospitality, entertainment, or retail – the first to plummet.
English is not spoken in Babylon
Claire Moodey and her partner, residents of the Flatbush neighborhood in Brooklyn, lost their jobs at the same time and are now struggling to pay their rent. Last week they invited the residents of their building to seek common solutions. “We wanted to open a dialogue and see if we can get together and help each other navigate at this time,” he tells El Confidencial.
Moodey, who was involved in Occupy Sandy in 2012, a left-wing initiative to help people who had been repossessed or evicted in the context of the hurricane, has offered to do the shopping for neighbors in need, or help with paperwork to 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.
The solidarity initiatives and organizations operate in the particular fabric of New York: a motley Babylon, with 800 languages compressed into a few neighborhoods. Universes that live together without hardly touching, with their services and their press and their traditions. Both TCAH and Citymeals on Wheels have interpreters to access speaking households Spanish, Cantonese, Russian, Hebrew or Creole. Languages that surpass English in many of the Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods.
9/11 brought catharsis, Covid did not
Unlike 9/11, or Hurricane Sandy, the pandemic has added a new element to the challenge. It has deprived citizens of the possibility of gathering in a physical space: the magic of the catharsis effect that occurs when thousands of people agree and they celebrate it ‘in situ’, with all the ritual of mobilization, greetings and hugs. The virus has taken the comfort of human contact.
“We have to maintain social distancing,” says Melony Samuels of TCAH. “The people we deliver food to know 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’s going to remain impersonal for a season.
Past challenges, bombings, hurricanes, recession, they had failed to pluck 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 with 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 lonely older New Yorkers,” says Beth Shapiro. «They are people who have survived their friends, their families and even their children. When food is brought to them, many times the delivery man enters their houses and leaves it in the kitchen. Now they can’t. They leave it hanging on the door. Before we had a visitation program, to keep the elderly company, now we can’t. But we called them on the phone. Social distancing has radically changed things.