Notes from a coronavirus hot spot: I'm a 72-year-old New York State resident; this is what it's like
'New York State, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, clocks in at a staggering 2,22,284 cases, with 14,636 deaths. No wonder I am anxious as the numbers keep spiraling upwards even though no one in my inner circle has fallen prey to the virus — yet.'
I tell myself that I am lucky to be in lockdown with my family in Irvington, New York, until the lethal COVID-19 virus bids us goodbye. After all, I live in a picturesque, tranquil little village on the banks of the Hudson River, 20 miles north of New York City in Westchester County. I should be relaxing in my living room, enjoying the spectacular views of the sunset over the river, while sipping a hot cup of coffee. And yet, I feel stressed and paranoid. This is because we are in the eye of the virus storm at so many levels, with Westchester being the first hot spot in New York State.
Less than six weeks after it stealthily crept into Westchester, the coronavirus outbreak has grown exponentially to 23,179 cases within a population of less than a million. New York State, the epicenter of the pandemic, clocks in at a staggering 2,36,732 cases, with 17,671 deaths. And the US with its 7,39,988 cases leads the world. Even tiny Irvington is in there with over 40 cases.
No wonder I am anxious as the numbers keep spiraling upwards even though no one in my inner circle has fallen prey to the virus — yet. This could change at any moment. I am over 70 years old, and every person who crosses my path is a potential threat, including my beloved grandson. Even inanimate objects such as cardboard and plastic can pass on the virus. I now inhabit a surreal, unrecognisable world where my very life depends on social distancing.
This was made very clear when I had to unexpectedly see my physician recently when self-treatment for a minor health problem did not work. I called for an appointment and was screened over the phone for coronavirus symptoms. When my car entered the parking lot, I was stopped by a woman wearing a mask who checked my driver’s license through the closed window. After the name was cross-checked against a list, I was told to park. Given my symptoms, I was allowed to go in unattended without the doctor having to escort me.
The waiting room of this exceptionally busy practice had two people in it because of the staggered appointments. My temperature was taken, I was given a mask and taken immediately to the doctor’s office. When he came in, he looked as if he had just left the set of a Star Wars movie. His face was fully covered by a plastic, wolf-like mask that jutted out and totally covered his face. I could not make out who was inside. He stood in the doorway wearing a light blue gown and gloves, insisting I put on my mask first before we talked. When he took out his stethoscope, he kept his distance and checked my lungs only from the back. I realised then that he was as afraid of me as I was of him and we both needed social distancing.
My second encounter with a doctor, my ophthalmologist, was truly an eye-opener! My eyes were bothering me, and I left a message for her since her practice was closed. She called me back on FaceTime. Based on her instructions, I turned on my bright desk lamp and held the phone close to my eyes. She asked me to open my eyes wide, diagnosed the problem instantly and called in the prescription to the local pharmacy in less than 10 minutes.
Similarly, every aspect of life has changed, even socialising. Zoom and Google Hangouts allow me to meet my friends virtually, attend lectures, and if I so wish, to participate in chanting ‘om’, Bollywood dancing and laughing yoga sponsored by the local Indian association. There are also free online courses from Harvard or virtual tours of the Louvre and the Vatican Museum to be explored.
Shopping is still fraught with anxiety over safety and I dither like Hamlet over my two options: order online, or send my son to the local grocery stores, which until recently had no safety measures in place. Ordering online will not expose my son to danger, but it also has its own issues. Does every item that is left on the front porch have to be disinfected in case the delivery person has the virus? And how do we handle the dreaded cardboard boxes? The dilemma was resolved for the present as all online companies delivering perishable goods have come to a screeching halt here because of the overwhelming demand, and the non-availability of many products. There is only one choice: the grocery store.
My son’s weekly forays there initially made me very nervous. No social distancing, no masks and gloves for the employees, no sanitisers for the customers. Now the situation has improved as stores have instituted the required safety features. Earlier, the stock was limited because of panic buying even before the lockdown. People piled toilet and paper towels, bottled water, cereals, rice, pasta, hand sanitisers, cleaning supplies and whatever else they could think of in their overflowing carts. My niece, who lives on the quiet Upper East Side in New York City, spoke of fights that broke out in the grocery aisles when she went shopping — even people in their 80s joined in the fray. Fortunately, there is now enough stock to prevent such mayhem.
I also have to sift through so much conflicting and often absurd information, even from alleged experts, and it has been mentally taxing. Wear a mask, don’t wear a mask, take malaria medicine, don’t take the medicine, use a hair dryer to send hot air up your nose as the heat will kill the virus — the list is endless. To get away from the fog of confusion, I seek clarity by watching Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily status updates on the coronavirus in New York. He calms me down by telling the truth and providing facts based on science. When he says the curve is plateauing, I feel hopeful. His steady hand at the wheel has helped New York navigate extremely stormy waters.
Given all this uncertainty, I am happy to cocoon myself at home with my family and focus on cooking, cleaning and frequently washing my protesting hands. I am busy and surprisingly not bored. Answering the frequent calls and responding to enquiries from anxious relatives and friends from other countries breaks up the routine and also connects the family to loved ones. Plus, there is always Netflix.
Being quarantined is like living in solitary confinement. It is an intense, personal experience and each person views it through a different lens. One of my friends who lives alone and is working from home is doing well. Another who lives with her daughter is depressed. A third friend, who runs the labs at a major hospital in New York City, drives into the city three days a week and she and her family are deeply worried about her safety.
I escape from all this most evenings when I go for a joyful walk on a path leading into the small woods nearby. The sky is blue, spring is here, and the world is awash with colour as the trees cast aside their dull winter clothes and show off their lovely spring wear. I feast my eyes on the yellow forsythias, white magnolias, purple lilacs, tulips and daffodils. While the squirrels scamper around, the birds create their own symphony. The insistent chattering of the sparrows is interspersed with the sad notes of a mourning dove, with percussion provided by the staccato hammering of woodpeckers. It reminds me that in the midst of all this horror, a beautiful world still exists out there and it is only a matter of time before the human race enters it again.
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