Grim daily reality in coronavirus epicentre for Singaporeans living in New York

Singaporean film maker Eunice Lau walks her dog Lulu outside her apartment in Long Island City, the worst hit part of the New York epicentre.
Singaporean film maker Eunice Lau walks her dog Lulu outside her apartment in Long Island City, the worst hit part of the New York epicentre.PHOTO: JUSTIN PATEMAN
People walk in the quiet Soho neighbourhood in New York, on April 11, 2020.
People walk in the quiet Soho neighbourhood in New York, on April 11, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON - From her apartment in Brooklyn, Ms Abigail Chan, a Singaporean who has lived in New York City for 21 years, has to place her conference calls on mute until sounds from the street fade.

For weeks now, the soundtrack of New York City has not been the roar of the traffic, nor the rattle of the tracks, nor the daily hubbub of the economic engine and melting pot of over eight million people.

It has been the wail of sirens as ambulances race through empty streets.

"I get sirens all the time, day in, day out," she told The Straits Times.

Ms Chan, 43, who works in private equity, would normally be travelling every month to all corners of the United States, but she has been holed up in her apartment for over a month now as Covid-19 ravages the city. 

Though she is constantly working on the phone, she feels the social deprivation, but it is a small burden to bear, she added. 

Far from over

The state of New York now has more cases than any other country outside the US - as of Saturday (April 11), 174,489 cases according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

"We are far from over in fighting this," the city's Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Saturday.

He wants city schools to remain closed for the rest of the academic year till September.

"The number of hospitalisations appears to have hit an apex, and the apex appears to be a plateau," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said at his daily briefing on Saturday. "All numbers are on a downward slope. They are still increasing, but at a lower rate.

"We have more people getting infected still, we have more people going into the hospital, but we have a lower number... Fewer people are going into the hospitals, still net positive."

But the city and the state are very far from even the beginning of the end, he cautioned.

"It is stabilising, but at a horrific rate," Mr Cuomo said. On Saturday morning, the state's death toll stood at 8,627; on Friday, 783 people died of the virus.

Health workers carry a patient to an ambulance, on April 11, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. PHOTO: AFP

Raffles Girls' School friends

New Yorkers have been living for weeks now with hospital tents in Central Park. At major hospitals, patients wait for hours to be admitted, lined up on gurneys around the block. Cable television channels interview exhausted doctors and sobbing nurses. Refrigerated trucks double as morgues. Mass graves are being prepared on Hart Island, for the bodies of the unclaimed.

Hart Island is near Long Island, the epicentre of New York's coronavirus contagion where over 1,000 healthcare workers have been stricken with Covid-19.

Singaporean film director Eunice Lau, who lives in Long Island City, keeps in touch with Ms Chan and another friend June Lee, also 43, who works in philanthropy.

The three were contemporaries at Raffles Girls’ School. Now, in this great pandemic of 2020, they check in regularly with each other.

"June sends us papers to read," says Ms Lau, who was the first of the trio to turn 44, just weeks ago.

“Abigail alerted us that the World Health Organisation said we need to get (fever-reducing medicine) Tylenol, and I was scrambling to find the last bottle when I was filming in Montana in March,” she recalled.

Like many people stuck at home in the city, Ms Lau and her husband get necessities delivered to their building. But they venture out twice a day for short walks with their dog Lulu. There are still people out and about, especially when the sun is out.

"We see people are out there with animals, with kids," she told ST. "But I just try to give them a wide berth even it means walking on the road. And I do go out with a DIY mask… made out of a handkerchief."

"When we do our grocery shopping once a week, I am obsessed about bringing wet wipes, wiping everything down, and using the hand sanitisers. I think that's actually the best protection, plus just coming home to wash your hands first thing, for 20 seconds at least."

Mourners attend a funeral at The Green-Wood Cemetery during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, on April 11, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

Memories of Sars

Ms Lau is no stranger to a pandemic. In 2003 in Singapore, she lost an uncle - a doctor - to severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).

"I've seen how my uncle lost his life at 37, and you would think that he would know better because he's a doctor, he's a surgeon - but no. So it can hit any of us and we might not survive it when we get it. So these are all very real things, and I think self-knowledge will help us to make calm, sensible decisions to stay alive," she said.

A frequently asked question is whether New York is over the worst and if there is light at the end of the tunnel. At his briefing on Saturday, Mr Cuomo said: "If anyone wants to say, 'Well, here's the score at halftime and I am going to now try to collect my bet because it's half time,' it doesn't work that way. The game has to be over and this game isn't over."

Ms Lee lives in Manhattan's Lower East Side, close to big stores and pharmacies, and there is more activity in that area. But when she and her husband ventured into Chinatown on Friday, they found that even places that were open two weeks ago were shuttered.

"It was really, really desolate," she said.

"I think in terms of optimism, there will be light at the end of the tunnel - only because there has to be. We can't be in a perpetual state of lockdown the way we currently are, with deaths and all of that. As to how long it will take for us to get there, I think that's the unknown."

Another Singaporean in Brooklyn, 31-year-old actress Jody Doo, spends her time at home in creative work, including reading books on Instagram Live, which helps others stuck at home. Her latest read: Roald Dahl's autobiography, Boy.

Singaporean actress Jody Doo, a Brooklyn resident, reads books aloud on Instagram Live. PHOTO: JODY DOO

Rainbows in windows

The mood outside is heavy, Ms Doo said. Around her neighbourhood, parents have put up rainbows on windows to indicate to others there are children in the house. It has become a game to children in the area to spot a rainbow on a window. And every evening at 7pm, people cheer for health workers, banging on pots and pans. Once, a neighbour played his saxophone.

All four of these Singaporeans know people who have tested positive for Covid-19; Ms Chan has colleagues who lost relatives to the virus.

But for Ms Doo, it was especially poignant when, not having heard from some time from a much older friend, a mentor and a grandfather figure to her, she called his building to find out how he was.

The next day, his wife called her back. Her husband had died of Covid-19, she said.

Ms Doo sobbed that day two weeks ago, as she played the video game Animal Crossing, which has become a favourite pastime for many locked down at home.

She uprooted all the virtual cherry trees in the game to plant her own commemorative garden. Memories of her own grandmother rushed back as well, she said.

"You always wish you could have spent more time together," she said.

"If there is someone you want to speak to, don't wait. Don't push it back, because you don't want to regret it."