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At the new epicentre of the pandemic, there’s an air of anxiety and uncertainty. But New York City knows how to keep its spirits high. By Purvi Thacker

New York City Lockdown
A woman wearing a mask sits by a bridge in New York

Every day exactly at 7 pm, New York comes alive as thousands gather on their balconies or fling open their windows and start clapping in chorus. The smattering of people clad in masks and gloves on the sidewalk chime in – a tribute to all healthcare workers and healers on the front line. I usually whip out my smartphone and record my 20-month-old toddler’s gleeful chortles as he joins in the applause, amid the clanging of pots and pans being used as tambourines. I then proceed to send the video to my father in India, a doctor, who is working tirelessly to save lives amid this frenzied pandemic that has crippled most of the world’s economies.

For the past month, I’ve become a permanent fixture on the windowsill of my apartment as I gaze in despair at the desolate streets of the most walkable city in the world, now the epicentre of the unforgiving COVID-19 outbreak. More often, I end up slamming the window shut and making my hourly pilgrimage to the sink, where I wash my hands for the umpteenth time in the day. “Don’t forget to sing Happy Birthday twice over,” yells my husband from our couch as I cringe—the song has started haunting my dreams.

 New York City Lockdown
A solitary Schnoodle dog on the highway outside Grant’s Tomb in Manhattan.

Stay-at-home advisories and social distancing have been in effect for a month, and while my husband, son, and I ache for our daily walks in Central Park, we made the decision to shelter in place. Little did we know how unprepared we were for reality. The collective consciousness is one of confusion, frustration, and uncertainty. Overnight, bedrooms have been converted to workstations and roommates have become co-workers; virtual learning and Zoom meetings have replaced classrooms and conference rooms; there is a constant race for grocery delivery spots, and toilet paper and hand soap have become luxuries. Even flour, for that matter! It seems that all of New York has started grieve-baking in quarantine. The reality is jarring and almost paradoxical—you pay a ridiculous amount of rent to live in the most expensive city in the world just so that you can experience it, and now you are compelled to sit in your shoebox-sized apartment and do nothing but wait for what feels like a never-ending deluge of days turning into nights.

On some days, I find myself constantly refreshing my Twitter feed and frantically tuning into Governor Cuomo’s daily press briefings, dissolving into helplessness. I fall into a digital routine—read the news, check the John Hopkins University dashboard on updated figures, and Google information on the lack of PPE and ventilators. All over the world, salaries are being slashed and anxious employees have been put on furlough; in the US alone, millions of people have filed for unemployment. On other days, I disintegrate into a sort of ennui—it’s when news fatigue sets in and I question everything. Does a two-metre distance actually protect you from contracting the virus? Is Dr Anthony Fauci (Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) right to caution us that isolation is indeed a public health service?

 New York City Lockdown
A nearly empty sidewalk in front of the New York Stock Exchange.

I’ve always been a meticulous planner and control freak. Just last month, I had decided to give up sugar and limit my intake of fried food so I could lose those last stubborn pounds. But this solitary time has been a catharsis of sorts. I am now taking life a day at a time. Spontaneous baking after seeing Chef Dominique Ansel’s Instagram stories, water activities with my toddler, or even squeezing in a midday group workout via video call with friends have taught me to savour life. I also revisited childhood recipes containing ghee and jaggery and forgot about my waistline as comfort food soothes like nothing else.

New York City LockdownPerhaps it’s a way to rethink the essentials in life—quality time with family, gratitude for a roof over my head and food on my plate, real connections, and a simpler way of living. Saying ‘thank you’ has never mattered more—I often think of my doorman, mailman, and deliveryman who’ve described to me how they have to wait 40 minutes to get into the subway. I’ve baked for my building staff and tipped generously, and in the process, have learned to temper expectations—deliveries will take a while, sanitising packages will be a mind-numbing chore, and colleagues’ screaming kids will show up on Zoom calls. The time for empathy is immediate, and mindfulness for small gestures is needed now more than ever.

When I speak to friends and we make plans for the future—once this period tides over—it evokes a sense of poignancy. Because what does “after this ends” or “when this is over” really mean? If we want to move towards the light at the end of the tunnel, we have to acknowledge the permanent effect this has had on our sense of existence and reality.

The writer is a freelance multimedia journalist based in New York, where she has lived for nine years.

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