The market is our fear laid bare. Wall Street exposes all the anxieties and worries we only tell our loved ones, our most trusted confidants, in the most hushed of tones so the kids don’t hear. The traders on the stock exchange floor, sprinting wildly between stations as the bell rings, screaming, joking, slumped in front of terminals, shouting, swearing, are us.
The streets of New York City were calm to begin with. A few people wearing masks, reports of outbreak clusters, a couple of schools closing, but generally business as usual. And then we fell down a cliff. A city emergency ballooned to a national emergency. Rush hour at Grand Central Terminal slowed, the thick lunchtime crowds in midtown thinned. Soon, arriving commuters disembarked trains and paused as they entered grand central, stunned by emptiness, the usual din quieted by stay at home orders. For the first time, the vast, star covered ceiling seemed appropriate.
My experience with wars in Iraq, or Nigeria, or Afghanistan have almost no parallel to this. There’s no idiots with guns, there’s no suicide bombings or terror threats. The issue here is irresponsible, entitled New Yorkers ignoring medical advice, gathering together and going about their lives as though nothing’s happening.
These past weeks, it’s been all Coronavirus, all the time. Workers pulling down booths and banners at cancelled conferences at the big hotels. Straphangers losing their balance as they attempt to not touch surfaces. A man, alone and unmasked, inside of a restaurant staring out a window, putting his hands together and looking to the sky in prayer.
It’s the sense of uncertainty that’s been most overwhelming. There seems to be no clear response to follow, officials and the public are grappling in the dark together. How severe will it be? When to wear a mask? What’s safe? And who to turn to when the communities we rely on become potential threats? When family and friends are potential vectors?
After the attacks on the world trade center, after hurricane Sandy and the ensuing blackout –during crisis– New Yorkers have dropped our attitudes and warmed to one another. This time feels different. There’s no storm surge, no defined enemy, nothing quantifiable to fight against or blame. As a city, we’re struggling, conflicted by the urge to isolate versus coming together during a frightening time. In lines of people waiting to get into supermarkets there’s a sense of camaraderie, but once inside, it’s every man for himself.
Invisible to the eye, the virus has made its way down avenues and into neighborhoods, and nowhere is our feeling of vulnerability as visible as the panic on the Wall Street. March is on course to be the worst month since The Great Depression, the most severe economic crisis in the history of the United States.
I was in Liberia for Ebola and Haiti for Cholera and those were places that were devastated. Dead bodies on the street. Communities wiped out. For all our critiques of a disorganized response from the government, we actually have a functioning administration and systems in place. We have homes. We have bought supplies. All we need to do is stay home, and if we can’t manage that then we’re doomed.
Saturday morning, I arrived at the Empire State Building’s observation deck. Still open, a doorman said, though it might close anytime. I pushed my mask on and rushed through the lobby.
“Stop!” said someone. It was a man standing behind a camera–the souvenir photographer. And there I was a deer in headlights, worried I’d missed the picture, with my mask on, not realizing I was standing in front of a green screen backdrop the photographer would use to drop in a picture perfect image of New York later.
Smile!” He said, without a hint of irony.