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New York Life in the Time of Coronavirus, a Kenyan memoir

By George Orwel*

Imagine that you died and after many years of being away you are allowed a single glance earthward. You are so moved that you cannot help sobbing. That is what I am feeling right now when I think of Kenya, the country of my birth, and that is because of how I see ordinary people dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic. Aside from initial heavy-handedness, Kenyans seem to be doing a good job overall, but I would like to warn against nonchalance.

The modernist painter Paul Klee once said that death is nothing bad, only how. I came to terms with the sentiment nearly 20 years ago on the morning of September 11 when a few hijackers ploughed two aircrafts into high-rise office towers in Lower Manhattan, killing nearly 3,000. My luck was in abundance as I had left that location about 10 minutes earlier. Looking back, that event, which has become a marker in the collective consciousness of Americans, is de minimis compared to what we are now enduring in New York City.

Against so many odds, we fight hard to escape the vicious hand of the virus that in the last six weeks has already claimed over 18,000 lives and sickened 300,000 here in New York alone. Hope is dwindling with each passing day. One morning you hear of a friend who has died; the next day a colleague or an acquaintance has got it, and you can imagine the routine.

You start to think of your loved ones. If your spouse or child is out of the house, even briefly, they immediately become vulnerable to the virus, and so you worry that she or he will return with it to put everyone’s life in danger. It is especially scary after word went out that our condominium building has four positive cases of the virus.

A frantic call from a friend in Florida asking me to take medication to her virus-stricken daughter in a nearby apartment frightened me. I oblige; what are friends for if not to help in situations as dire as this? I wear a face mask and gloves and put on other protective gear before making the delivery. Another friend calls: he has tested positive, and as a senior citizen, he is in the high-risk age group. He asks me to get tested since we met at a museum a few weeks earlier, but then no test is readily available. Stock up food your family needs for weeks, he tells me, and adds, please try to avoid going to the pharmacy and the grocery store because those are where super-spreaders go to.

A month-and-a-half into the lockdown, we are still hunkered down in our apartment, intently watching reports of long patient lines in emergency rooms, crowded intensive care units and parked refrigerated trucks where they pile up bodies of the victims. I see photos of trucks full of body bags heading for unmarked graves in Hart Island, accompanied by undertakers dressed in white protective jumpsuits.

We read that the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers have placed an order for 50,000 more body bags at cost of $5.1 million. That tells you what they think. I hope they are wrong, but they may very well be right. They are not politicians who lie to the public for a living. Instead, these guys are tough, clear-eyed soldiers and professional engineers who deal in facts to plan the logistics of dealing with such eventualities. And so, we wait.


It is a rainy spring morning and I am up early. I do not even watch the news anymore. It is too grim with obituaries, deserved rantings against Donald Trump and healthcare workers struggling heroically to save lives while the search for a vaccine takes time. The nearby Brooklyn Hospital Center is particularly hard hit; it has been in the news lately; overwhelmed doctors and nurses there are doing the best they can, working in harsh conditions.

I need something more uplifting, so I look down the empty streets from my window. It has been a ritual of mine: watching the seamless flow of traffic at this intersection of Myrtle and Flatbush Extension avenues, the morning rush-hour commute. Normally, it is an art in motion, and I find joy in the almost futuristic aesthetics of traffic flow. Today, it feels different.

My mind flashes back to the history class I had the night before, when student-after-student told stories of their loved ones who invariably succumbed to the coronavirus, lonely in their hospital beds with no family members to say goodbye. You realize that each is more than a victim; they are not data either; they are people with a past–history, like all of us–and a future, aspirations and dreams.

Each story by my students not only ends in tears or hushed silence, but also with optimism–“thank God, I have you as my other community,” they would say. The pain is real, and people need help to go through it. And that word—community—has taken on a new meaning for us. It is fair to say that I found a community in New York.

Yesterday, I freaked out because my son showed symptoms of the virus. I quarantined him. But we have been sharing this small space for weeks, so that is not useful. I am careful because my wife has low immunity from a preexisting condition, so I asked her to stay in a different room. My thoughts raced; what do I do? Soon after, I started feeling tired, which is one of the symptoms of the virus, along with dry cough and shortness of breath. I am scared. I cannot stop thinking what is next? Should I draft a will?

I know I am not being hypochondriacal. I am even usually not paranoid, nor am I known to have psychic instability. As a precaution, I arrange to go for a test at the nearest urgent care office in Brooklyn Heights. I make sure every surface and every door-handle is cleaned with disinfectant. I take up cooking and caring responsibilities. It is not always easy, as Martin Heidegger once said of the ethos of care.

The coronavirus is having a terrifying psychological effect on people. It really brings out what Heidegger called angst, the authentic self of human beings. I am nervous and not sure I can stay indoors any longer, but my life depends on it. The American Psychological Association recently said the virus is not only changing the way we live, but also how we die and grieve, leading many people to experience anxiety, stress and depression.

In New York City, a psychology of fear of the virus is all too enveloping, worsening mental illness for many traumatized people. Andrew Solomon, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center, recently wrote in the New York Times that we are in a dual crisis of physical and mental health. He suggested that to ameliorate the effects of social isolation and fear, we should meditate and consult therapists. More than 6,000 mental health professionals volunteered to offer free services to struggling New Yorkers. That is great.

Here is the problem: that is not the kind of thing a soldier like my son does, nor someone like me who was brought up in Kenya. That may be the new culture; but I remain frozen in the Kenya of old, when we went to the National Youth Service to toughen up ahead of college enrolment; and when parents urged kids to vumlia.

But do not be fooled. Everyone is vulnerable without another person to talk to, commiserate with or get advice from. That, in a nutshell, is what therapists do.There is nothing wrong or weak about that if it can help. That is what my history class is for: providing a therapeutic community to go with education for my students, most of them more experienced in the ways of life.

Laurence Goldstein, a philosopher at the University of Hong Kong, wrote that we live in the present, the past is gone and irretrievable, and the future awaiting us remains very much unknown. But as human beings, we have the amazing ability to bring the past and future into the present; to adopt with change or effect change. I believe that is the task for us in New York and in Kenya during this time of Coronavirus pandemic.

*George Orwel and Zubeida Jaffer completed their MScs in Journalism in 1996 at Columbia University. George decided to remain in New York while Zubeida returned to South Africa. He was a reporter at Dow Jones Newswire/ Wall Street Journal when the planes crashed into the World Trade Centre where his newsroom was located. He is presently a lecturer at the City University of New York and a member of the Board of Directors of the Museum of African Culture, Art and History.