April 4, 2020

New York Is the Epicenter of the World

The hidden gift in this pandemic is that we learn how to prepare for the worse one still to come.

I asked for the dateline in pride for my beloved city. For the third time in 20 years it’s been the epicenter of a world-class crisis — 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis and now the 2020 pandemic. No one asks — not one person has asked — Why us? We think: Why not us? Of course us. The city of the skyscrapers draws the lightning. There are 8.6 million of us, we are compact, draw all the people of the world, and travel packed close in underground tubes. Of course we got sick here first. The crises are the price we pay for the privilege of living in the most exciting little landmass on the face of the Earth.

What do we know? That we’ll get through it. We’ll learn a lot and it will be hard but we’ll get through, just like all the last times.

You have seen the pictures of Manhattan — streets sparse, no traffic. You can hear the red light click. We feel a little concussed, not by a blow to the head, which is what daily life in New York is, but the lack of a blow to the head. We’re not used to quiet! Or rather silence interspersed by sirens.

And so the power of our communal moment, the phenomenon of what happens every night now at 7 — people leaning out the windows, on their balconies, screaming, cheering, banging pots together and applauding our health-care workers, the doctors and nurses, orderlies and cleaning people who are getting us through it. The first time I heard it, early this week, it sounded like kids after school in a playground. Now it sounds like Yankee Stadium, like someone got a hit and you feel some new kind of roused tenderness.

Here’s who was being cheered:

A nurse in New Jersey, a friend, sent a series of texts. “Our dead are multiplying in my hospital. We have a refrigerated trailer behind the hospital for the bodies. We went from one to 3 to 9 in 3 days.”

I asked if she felt safe. “My fellow nurses, we are terrified. We now say ‘when we get sick’ not if.” They generally have personal protective gear, but it’s not always enough. The night before, a patient walked into the hospital and gave birth 14 minutes later. “No masks on, doc barely got gloves on. She is, we hope, negative, but if positive we were all exposed.”

My friend’s grown son, also a medical professional, asked her to get her will and her advance directive, stating end-of-life decisions, in order. She did.

I asked where they are. “Oh, it’s propped on my kitchen table.” So if things are hurried he can’t miss it.

When we spoke she told me everyone in her little town decided to get together on the edge of their property last Friday at dusk and wave to each other. It was nice, everyone came out, lifted a glass, yelled hellos.

“They applauded me,” she said.

I teased: “Because you’re cute and sexy.”

“No,” she said, with wonder. “Because I’m a nurse.”

She had never received applause for that before.

Our governor is a folk hero. You’re on the phone, you see the briefing, you say, “I gotta go, Cuomo’s on.” Andrew Cuomo has the latest, most pertinent information and knew a month ago what a ventilator is. He prioritizes problems, has command of the subject matter, is human, eloquent, tireless.

By rising to the moment he has become a unifying force.

Looking back maybe we’ll see some of the nation’s governors the way we speak of generals at Gettysburg — “And then there was Hogan of Maryland, who wouldn’t budge, and DeWine comes up the hill with the Ohio volunteers.”

Senators have never been so useless, or governors so valuable. What a status shift.

Everyone is fascinated that everything is closed but liquor stores remain open. This is because there isn’t a politician in the country stupid enough to prohibit alcohol in a national crisis. They may know on some level that no nation in the history of the world has closed both its churches and its liquor stores simultaneously and survived. Russia after the revolution closed the churches but did its best to keep vodka available because they wanted everyone drunk, which is the only way to get through communism. And how Russia did get through communism.

But we are outdoing ourselves. The AP reports alcoholic-beverage sales rose 55% in the week ending March 21. Online liquor sales were up 243%. An executive with the Nielsen market-research firm speculated that people were stocking up for a prolonged stay at home.

Those Zoom meetings are going to get fabulous.

Everyone is having thoughts about the meaning and implications of the pandemic. Here are two.

The first is that America’s immigration struggle will be prompted by circumstances nearer to resolution. Public sentiment will back harder borders and a new path to citizenship for illegal immigrants living here.

Global pandemics do nothing to encourage lax borders. As to illegal immigrants, you have seen who’s delivering the food, stocking the shelves, running the hospital ward, holding your hand when you’re on the ventilator. It is the newest Americans, immigrants, and some are here illegally.

They worked through an epidemic and kept America going. Some in the immigration debate have argued, “They have to demonstrate they deserve citizenship” — they need to pay punitive fines, jump through hoops. “They need to earn it.”

Ladies and gentlemen, look around. They did.

Here is where the debate is going. When it’s over, if you can show in any way you worked through the great pandemic of ‘20, you will be given American citizenship. With a note printed on top: “With thanks from a grateful nation.”

Harder borders and compassionate resolution is what this column has asked for, for almost 20 years.

Good things can come from bad things.

Second thought. The hidden gift in this pandemic is that this isn’t the most terrible one, the next one or some other one down the road is. This is the one where we learn how to handle that coming pandemic. We are well into the age of global contagions but this is the first time we fully noticed, stopped short, actually reordered our country to fight it.

This is when we learn what worked, what decision made it better or worse, what stockpiles are needed, what can be warehoused, where research dollars must be targeted.

We’re on a shakedown cruise. Knowledge of how to handle a coming, more difficult pandemic is being gained now, by all of us.

People have asked about great speeches for hard moments. There are many. Here is Elizabeth I at Tilbury, England, in August 1588. The very existence of her nation was under challenge; her people needed faith in their leader. She waded into a crowd of common people saying she’d been told not to but she would never fear them, they were blood of her blood. Extemporaneously: “I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too.”

Always remember who you are. Never let anything — a germ, an armada — put you off your game.

Republished by permission from peggynoonan.com.

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