9/11 v. COVID-19

Lockdown and Isolation in Two Different Eras of Fear

The fountains that replaced the Twin Towers in 2013 after the area was closed to tourists in early March.

Before the novel corona virus hit U.S. soil, Americans were only set to commemorate one anniversary in 2021: the 20th of the day forever known as 9/11. Now, we will likely add the one-year observation of the March day that COVID-19 became a pandemic in New York. Both will focus on a city that represents America to the rest of the world; both will also recall two eras in which New Yorkers had to accept a degree of vulnerability that we don’t necessarily like. Aside from these facets, 9/11 and “Coronageddon” — as this latest crisis has been dubbed by the papers — have little, if anything, in common.

Just as every political leader in 2001, Governor Andrew Cuomo has appealed for “humanity and civility” in this current time of citywide duress and national hysteria. Perhaps because he was transitioning from Washington, DC to New York at the time of the 9/11 attacks, Cuomo gets a pass for his naïveté. When it comes to social mobilization and lending a hand in emergencies, terrorist attacks are much different from contagions. As a 25-year student at Columbia Journalism School, I was at Ground Zero for most of the week after the second invasion on U.S. soil. I witnessed great fear, but also the humanity and civility as requested: Americans opened their homes and their businesses to feed each other, embraced random strangers, reached out to relate shared experiences and opened up agencies to help contain traumatic stress. Two weeks later, New York was business-as-usual, as if nothing had happened. Six months later, life was, by no means, rosy, but the streets were full with merriment and laughter again.

Grand Central Station during rush hour on 18 March 2020

I have now lived in New York for the past 20 years, and I am again in the epicenter of a national emergency. This time, however, we have a nameless, faceless enemy — a minuscule virus that anyone could have. Everyone is “the other” — the potential threat that could somehow do us all in. For the past three weeks, we have holed ourselves in our 500 square-feet of allotted space (if one is lucky) and waited for the microbe to strike. All of our creature comforts have been shut and all of our essential workers exhausted. As I watch Andrew and Chris Cuomo do their daily brother routine on my 42-inch flat screen, receive COVID alerts on my smart phone and tune into my digital podcast on my Alexa, I feel more isolated than ever. I could be as angry at our incompetent president as I was in 2001, but I am disenfranchised and depleted.

Both of our crisis-era presidents were aware of the dangers ahead, but they were too busy playing golf and cutting essential services that cost their billionaire friends pocket change. In both cases, their lack of leadership created a preventable emergency of epic proportions, but any recourse that we once seemingly had, we cannot take. As I make phone calls to friends, in the hope of a human connection, I receive lectures about face masks and the danger I pose to others by going outside. It stands in stark contrast to the social solidarity I witnessed at the million-person marches in the days before we went to Iraq. Calls for help now go through Facebook groups, not neighborhood meetings at the LGBT community center.

The dining room of a formerly full Palm Steakhouse in downtown New York, 18 March 2020, during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Yes, different evils, different generations, different circumstances. In the end, however, people need people — tangible people. As compelling a killer as COVID-19 may be, Americans, in the past five years, have been dying from suicide, alcohol-related illnesses, and drug overdoses at an unprecedented rate. Suicide is now the tenth leading cause of death for Americans, increasing more than 30 percent in half of U.S. states since 1999. Since 2015, the nation’s average life expectancy has been declining — in 2017 alone, approximately 117,000 people died “Deaths of Despair”, of which 47,000 were suicide and 70,000 were drug overdose. For perspective, 58,000 U.S. soldiers died in the Vietnam War; an average of 40,000 people are killed in car accidents per year.

The country has not only a medical disaster on its dossier, but also a social and psychological one. As strange as this may sound, I don’t fear the corona virus as much as I fear the social isolation COVID-19 is causing — and then its aftermath. Demand for remote therapy, such as Talkspace (Olympian Michael Phelps’ preferred choice for online text and video sessions), Brightside, an app that offers treatment and medication for anxiety and depression, and Big Health, which has released free programming to combat poor sleep and anxiety, has increased 50 percent, according to Bloomberg News. And while the American Psychiatric Association has found digital care “equivalent” to in-person treatment for mood and mind illness, insurance still barely covers it.

An empty subway car in Brooklyn, 18 March 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic of New York.

The bigger problem: mental health providers are overwhelmed, and like doctors in the ER taking care of COVID patients, there aren’t enough therapists to go around to treat people’s dread. Moreover, people who need hands-on treatment, such as those who become addicted to alcohol or drugs, are falling through the cracks. Even Alcoholics Anonymous might admit that their Zoom online meetings don’t serve quite the same purpose as getting out of the house and sitting in a group of people. New York probably has the greatest need for mental health services and the greatest dearth of them — at least those covered by insurance, sliding scale or no cost. A recent call to NYU Langone Psychiatry Associates resulted in a quote of $400 per session, no insurance.

Moreover, once the face masks go on, how long will it take for us to take them off? How many months will elapse before we feel safe to shake hands, kiss each other on the cheek or embrace again. When will New Yorkers have old friends — or even new acquaintances — into their homes? Depression is an illness that feeds on isolation. A depressed person turned away by friends and family — for any reason — feels small. They want to disappear; they see themselves as a burden. Ending their life or destroying themselves, in their minds, is not a selfish act — it’s a generous one. They have relieved those they love of yet another demand that cannot seemingly be tolerated in an already upside-down world. I know. I have been to the point of self-destruction a few times, especially in the aftermath of these catastrophes.

The World Trade Center, which replaced the Twin Towers destroyed in 9/11, during the COVID-19 pandemic on 18 March 2020.

As Cuomo and the others issue their calls, the U.S. public might benefit from remembering a few things about humans: we are all made up of the same fluids and flesh as each other; we emit and absorb bacteria and other germs — good and bad — on an hourly basis; we all suffer from ailments, and at times, bodily breakdowns. I’m not saying run around the city without your mask or your gloves or even necessarily reduce your expectations of others’ hygiene standards. But when a bare hand reaches out, or a soul needs a cradle, grasp it and hold on, and you may even save a life during this moment of the unknown.

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Adrian Margaret Brune is a native Oklahoman who lives, works, writes, runs and plays competitive tennis in London, UK.

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Adrian Margaret Brune

Adrian Margaret Brune

Adrian Margaret Brune is a native Oklahoman who lives, works, writes, runs and plays competitive tennis in London, UK.

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