Nigeria: Living in the Shadows of Death in New York


New York — Living in New York City these days is grim, disturbing and frightening. The ambulance sirens blaring on empty streets are unending.

Their ominous echoes interrupt your thought as you stay quietly indoors, praying not to become a victim of the coronavirus pandemic that has disrupted virtually every aspect of our lives in the past one month.

This is my third year living in New York City. It used to be lovely and bubbly but now living here is like dwelling in the shadows of death. I am thankful to God to be alive.

Since the first case was recorded on March 1 in New York, so much has changed but none describes the pervasive gloom than the ever-increasing death toll, putting the city on the map as the epicentre of the American coronavirus outbreak.

Last Sunday night, I read from the New York Post that the city's COVID-19 death toll had climbed to over 2,400 with almost 65,000 cases.

"Terrible numbers coming out of that state, man," a friend sent me a text earlier in the day, worried I might be affected.

"How are you doing in New York, I heard it is terrible out there?" "Are you okay, how are you coping over there?" SMS like these have increased from my friends and families in Nigeria as concerns about my safety and wellbeing deepen.

Fear and uncertainties have grown wings in the past couple of weeks in New York. About five weeks ago, when the city recorded its first case, there was a loud cough from a fellow inside the A-Train going downtown Brooklyn. All eyes swiftly turned towards the fellow, as if he had just triggered a national catastrophe.

Some days ago, I woke up feeling sick and immediately concluded it must be coronavirus. Then I got better. The other day, I coughed twice to clear the phlegm hanging on the back of my throat and I suddenly started to think, "Hope this is not coronavirus."

Living in the shadows of death can be emotionally overwhelming. But you never truly understand the impact of death until you lose someone.

How can you understand the seriousness of over 2,400 deaths and more if you don't know the victims or have never met them?

I began to imagine 2,400 deaths beyond the numbers when I remember two elderly couple in my church at Harlem who died of the coronavirus last week.

"Brother Franklyn and his wife, Sister Theresa, have gone home to be with the Lord. He died on Sunday while his wife died on Monday," a church member told me on phone.

Sadness gripped me. I remember their lovely faces as they greeted me the last time we met some months ago at the Harlem church. The death toll made more meaning to me now. I can now vividly imagine over 2,400 families in deep grief.

A good way some of us living in the shadows of death console ourselves is to think of the good old days. I remember January and February, when the city revelled in its glory: Bustling subways, parks and nightlife.

Who could have thought that the iconic tourist attractions like the Times Square, Central Park, Eiffel Tower and a host of others, would ever be deserted? Who could have thought that the traffic jam would ever fade away? These days, walking on the streets reminds me of election days in Lagos. New York City that never sleeps has since gone into a coma.

Boredom is a common complaint these days. Working from home is a good alternative but when you stay in same spot, same room or apartment all day, your system begins to resist the new order and this might affect your productivity.

Boredom begins to take its toll on you over time. You begin to look out of your window, itching to go out and enjoy the sunny spring morning that reminds me of Lagos. But the thought that you are safer indoors would make you have a rethink.

Unlike Lagos and Abuja with stricter lockdown rules, New York is different. The schools and businesses have closed but the subways and other public transports are still operating. People still move around freely, though observing the social distancing order of the government.

Perhaps this explains the city's staggering numbers. One American laments that he is appalled by the "terrible leadership of the US", but hopes Americans can cast that off soon, along with the virus.

This sedentary lifestyle is frustrating too. I have started to develop regular pain and discomfort for sitting too long: sometimes, I wince and recoil in pains when I stand up after sitting for long. I feel numb as the blood flow to my thighs when I stand up occasionally to stretch my legs. My neck and shoulders sometimes go stiff. My diet has drastically changed too.

Before now, I would eat once a day and be satisfied. Now, I eat more than once and sleep more frequently during the weekends. Last time I checked the mirror, I realised how much weight I had gained. My face had grown fatter. I am seriously considering inculcating an exercise routine into my day.

Getting food is not like it used to be. Recently, I walked into a popular grocery store on Atlantic Avenue, a major thoroughfare linking NYC boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens to get some food. A long queue was waiting outside the store. It was not like this last week when I walked in briskly and picked what I wanted.

I was thankful it was opened today though. Most of the food stores in Brooklyn have not opened in the last couple of weeks. We were about 10 when I joined the queue. We waited 20 or 30 minutes for those inside to leave before we were allowed in.

When I entered the massive store, I quickly noticed the empty shelves. Panic buying has left many items on the shelves depleted. All the cold-fighting fruits like ginger, lemon, lime, oranges and pineapples have disappeared from the shelves.

This was the first time I would not see onions on the shelf. I was specifically surprised that ginger that was always there in abundance had gone.

As I picked a few items available, I pondered on the possibility that someone with the virus had touched the item. And as I walked into my room, I feared I was taking a load of the virus into my home but I soon consoled myself with the thought that the virus cannot survive the heat of cooking.

On Saturday, I received an invitation from a journalist colleague to report on how the pandemic is affecting small businesses in low-income neighbourhoods in Brooklyn. The colleague had fixed an interview with a Nigerian immigrant on Franklyn Avenue, Brooklyn. His name is Hema Agwu.

Agwu is a co-owner of a fast-casual restaurant that specialised in suya dishes (steak, chicken breast, shrimps, salmon laid over rice with vegetables).

It was refreshing leaving home for the first time in a long time to see another part of the Brooklyn borough. The crowds in the subways have disappeared. The trains take longer to arrive these days but it was worth the wait. I felt good walking on the streets and enjoying the warmth of the sun.

"Our daily sales have gone down like 50 per cent," Agwu, popularly called the Suya Guy, laments as he narrated his ordeal with the coronavirus pandemic. "I don't think I can even pay the rent now." His voice was laden with concerns.

Agwu is lucky because New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says no one can get evicted for nonpayment of rent during this period.

As Agwu continued his story, a Nigerian woman walked in; she is from Adamawa State. She introduced herself and exchanged pleasantries with us. Another Nigerian, who specialised in the production of sugarcane juice for restaurants and stores, also visited the restaurant.

The concern on their faces is pervasive as they discussed the virus. These Nigerians in the Diaspora are already feeling the heat. In the coming days, they will face a decline in revenue and you can imagine the effects on their families who depend on them.

In 2018, migrant remittances to Nigeria equalled US$25 billion, according to data from the PwC. The PwC had estimated that migrant remittances to Nigeria could grow to $29.8 billion next year but I doubt this will be possible with the current situation.

I am praying that what we witness here in New York does not happen anywhere in Nigeria. As I returned home Saturday evening from the Suya restaurant, I became even more concerned about the infection rate in Nigeria and my families and friends over there.

On Sunday, an acquaintance of mine wanted to get fuel somewhere in Ota, Ogun State but could not go with her "costly phones" because of the fear of being robbed. "People are being robbed now in Ota as this lockdown continues," she says.

How will Nigeria manage this pandemic with the appalling medical infrastructure and insufficient healthcare workers? How do we effectively contain the virus, for instance, in Lagos, a city inhabited by a sea of people living in crowded homes? Time will tell.

Olagoke is a New York-based Nigerian journalist.

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