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Story Publication logo October 27, 2020

One Ventilator & Three Patients: A Meditation on COVID-19 From Downtown Brooklyn

Graphic courtesy of C. Zawadi Morris.

What is the virus crisis telling us about who we are as a society? The COVID-19 Writers Project will...

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Marchers raise their fists at a justice rally for George Floyd and celebration of Juneteenth. Image by Fiora Watts / Shutterstock. United States, 2020.
Marchers raise their fists at a justice rally for George Floyd and celebration of Juneteenth. Image by Fiora Watts / Shutterstock. United States, 2020.

This work is supported by BK ReaderBrooklyn Community Foundation COVID-19 Response FundThe National Geographic Society's COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists, The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and The American Medical Association.

This commentary is part of The COVID-19 Writers Project (C19WP), which captures a hyper-local view of the coronavirus pandemic, while examining the extent to which health outcomes are impacted by socio-economics, education, and race.

The sirens wake me at three o'clock in the morning. The noise is horrible in its ceaselessness. At first I think I'm dreaming. What it sounds like is a couple of ambulances are stuck in traffic and just leaning on their sirens. There's no going back to sleep, but I'm still not totally awake as I stumble to my window, a large six by eight-foot window that looks directly out onto the six lane north-south thoroughfare that is Flatbush Ave Extension, Downtown Brooklyn. When I look out the window the sight is hallucinogenic. The whole avenue is lit up with ambulances, on one side of the avenue they're screeching north over the Manhattan Bridge, on the other side of the median heading south further into Brooklyn.

Not even on September 11, 2001 when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center did I see this many ambulances. And unlike September 11 when the ambulances raced for the most part in one direction toward Ground Zero, these ambulances lighting up Flatbush Ave are streaming in all directions, south, north, some turning left on Myrtle Ave, some turning right, the rest barreling straight ahead. Can this many people be sick? This is the beginning. This is the first night the ambulances wake me up, but it will not be the last. Terror fills me.

I first understand the seriousness of COVID19 when I hear Angela Merkel addressing the German people. She cut through the obfuscating and criminally self-serving messages coming from the White House, and the censored and blue-penciled messages coming from the CDC. Chancellor Merkel, who obtained a doctorate in quantum chemistry and worked as a research scientist until 1989, floors me when she says that the virus will affect 70 to 80% of humankind. This contrasted drastically with what the president of the United States, a serially bankrupt businessman who a major source of his income has come from reality TV, had said, "We have it very much under control … It's going to disappear. One day it's like a miracle, it will disappear," February 23-27, 2020. The president knew he was lying when he said this. The virus that would go on to kill over 200,000 Americans was spreading uncontrolled. "70 to 80% of humankind." I am in shock and traumatized.

I'm checking in with a friend, a fitness instructor, who like many people has lost his job due to the shuttering of the city's gyms during the lockdown. He tells me he's been "tapped" to work in a hospital. I'm thinking this is good, he can get in there and do some physical therapy with the patients and pick up some change till he can get back to work. It's not like that, he says. What the hospital has hired him for is to work in the morgue, "suiting up" and transporting bodies from the morgue to refrigerated trucks. At one point there were so many bodies they ran out of body bags and had to use trash bags. One trash bag was pulled up over the feet, another pulled down over the head, and then the two bags were taped together around the waist, and these people were then ready for their last ride on this earth, many of them to unmarked mass graves. I am numb. 

A study done in 2018 detailing the effect of how police killings of unarmed black Americans harms the mental health of black adults nationwide resurfaces after the February 23, 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Co-lead author Dr. Atheendar Venkataramani said, "Each year, more than 300 black Americans are killed by the police, and at least one quarter of them unarmed. Black people are nearly three times more likely than white people to be killed by police, and nearly five times more likely to be killed while unarmed … On average, black Americans are exposed to four police killings in their state of residence a year … the mental health harm caused by police killings of unarmed black people is nearly as large as the mental health struggles associated with diabetes." When I read this article in February of 2020 George Floyd was still alive. And we hadn't lost John Lewis yet. In the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic New York was the epicenter, "… plagued by staggering death totals, which peaked at more than seven times normal level," reported the New York Times. But Black and brown know that was an undercount! We see a Latinx sister post a picture of her brother on and we hear her sobbing and screaming,

"He is having symptoms of COVID19 but emergency room personnel sent him home to self-isolate and told him to come back in a week! He can't breathe!" Go home and isolate in your basement for seven days and then come back and we'll test you. In seven days he's dead. EMTs will remove his corpse from his bedroom floor, but his death is not listed as a COVID19 death because he was never tested! I try to imagine Trump or one of his children being sent home untreated to isolate in his White House bunker and told to come back in a week. In this pandemic who lived and who died had a lot to do with the color of their skin, their income, and their ability to access medical services. I am angry. 

We are still hearing from the Liar in Chief that the virus will just go away, you know, with the hot weather! There are people who really thought Trump was just stupid (which he is), because it's almost inconceivable that someone would mismanage and minimize a response to what many have called the direst situation the world has faced since World War Two because he didn't want to hurt his chances for reelection, which is what he felt would have happened if he admitted how bad the COVID19 pandemic was. I believe that if the over 200,000 people now dead from COVID19 in America had been young, white men, Trump would now be being brought up on criminal charges for the way he has mismanaged this pandemic for his own financial and political gain. But it wasn't young white men. It was people who looked a lot like me, people who could have been me.

I had a genuine fear of what would happen to me if I contracted COVID19. I live in a Brooklyn zip code that is served by a "safety net" hospital. As I write this a president who used voter suppression, collusion with foreign governments, and pandering to Neo Nazis and white supremacists—the lowest of America's low—to con his way into the White House, is being air-lifted on my dime, to receive some of the best health care on the planet for free, while he tries to dismantle what little heath care Americans who are not rich have. He will not pay a dime for this healthcare. He will not be held liable for knowingly exposing hundreds of people at an event that is being called a super spreader event, which he held indoors at the White House. He will not pay. Many lawmakers at his super spreader event receive FREE healthcare. A doctor at one of New York's "safety net" hospitals, so called because they serve the poor, spoke on condition of anonymity, when he recalled a night when he had three patients who needed to be intubated. When he called the intensive-care unit, he was told there was only space for one. One man was in his mid-40s, the other two were both over 70. The two in their 70s were left to die.

Who lives and who dies, who gets airlifted and who gets shunted aside? The hospital in my zip code is a "safety net" hospital. It is likely where I would have been taken if I got sick, it could have been me with a white man in a white coat deciding if I would live or die. I am 70, the age of the two patients left to die. At the height of the pandemic, here in what was the epicenter, had I who pay the taxes that paid for the president to be air lifted to the hospital, that paid for his experimental drugs, and his hospital stay—had I gotten sick, there is a real possibility that I would have died on the hospital floor, been bundled into trash bags, placed in a refrigerated truck and transported to a mass unmarked grave. I am enraged.

George Floyd's death was one of the approximately 300 killings of Blacks by police each year. Where I grew up in Los Angeles smoking Marlboro cigarettes and Kool cigarettes, there was a cigarette jingle for a popular brand of cigarette that shows a bright tooth white woman in 1950s attire and she is smoking a cigarette. This is before we know what the tobacco companies have known for years, that the cigarettes will kill us. The jingle under her svelte suavely dressed body reads: "LET'S SMOKE A LUCKY STRIKE TONITE." It's in Los Angeles in the 1960s some members of the Los Angeles Police Department substituting the word "Kill" for "smoke" and "a n-----" for "a Lucky Strike" are recorded beginning their tour of duty singing: "LET'S SHOOT A N----- TONIGHT." There is a sense of thrill killing, these were not difficult encounters where cops were confused and up against the wall. This is a landscape where the police department in the 1960s is composed of white southern transplants, racists, who left the precinct to go on duty with the idea of murdering a black man. I grew up with this litany of Black death—fifty years name after name autopsy report after autopsy report. Depression is beginning to set in. 

Then there's a rumbling outside my window, the window where I first heard the loud obscene cacophony of ambulance sirens. There are THOUSANDS of people streaming down Flatbush Avenue Extension. They have taken over the street and completely stopped traffic. I open my window to the sound of: 




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