– Carlos M. Frota

I – Chronicle of a proud city

New York, a proud city. World business center. Meeting point for all races and cultures. Capital of diversity and pluralism. But  this is the old story.

New York now is a city in quarantine.  Where before optimism reigned in every street , in every square, despite the diverse fortune of the players,  in the huge comedy of life, fear has invaded the Big Apple, and the more important numbers every morning are now the pandemics death toll rather than the Dow Jones figures.

A New York City emergency room physician compares her experience fighting COVID-19 to that of post-hurricane relief efforts as the city continues to deal with waves of patients. “I’ve done disaster medicine trips before,” Dr. Celine Thum told Yahoo News. “I volunteered in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and it was also the same kind of feeling, where we had limited resources and we did what we could. The surreal part of this response is that I’m at a large hospital with every specialty and the thought is this should be an environment where we have every resource.”

Dr. Thum said that the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in her hospital is a legitimate problem, echoing reporting of similar issues across the country. She canvassed local hardware stores herself – walking, to avoid taking the train – successfully getting respirator masks donated to help her department. Still, she said doctors in other departments were steaming their masks or stretching single-use ones out for an entire day.

“We have very limited supply,” said Thum. “We wear the same thing the whole time. Sometimes I’m afraid to go to the bathroom, or even when I take a break or get hungry and need to eat, to take off things and make sure I’m not touching or contaminating things.”

The limit on supplies isn’t just a shortage of PPE: Thum said they are running short on everything from nurses to beds, making it feel “very much like war-time medicine.”

Does this story come from the economic capital of the first great power? Or rather from a poor country in a distant corner of Africa?

II – The great equalizer 

I read in the media: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is opening up about the coronavirus hitting close to home for his family.

At his now-daily pandemic press conference on Tuesday, the politician, 62, spoke at a press conference about his younger brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, who announced earlier on Tuesday that he tested positive for the novel coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 respiratory illness. Andrew said his brother will “be fine,” but used his story to stress the importance of social distancing during the pandemic.

“Everyone is subject to this virus. It is the great equalizer,” the governor told reporters. “I don’t care how smart, how rich, how powerful you think you are, I don’t care how young, how old. This virus is the great equalizer.”

After the dramatic afternoon of Pope Francis praying alone in front of St Peter’s Basilica, in a deserted square otherwise full of millions of worshipers in normal times –  after that afternoon, I was saying, the world’s perception changed about the time we are living in.

All our certitudes shuddered, beliefs and prejudices shaken, because the “invisible enemy” introduced in our daily lives an unexpected element of fragility, vulnerability. More obvious in old people. Not absent in younger people.

It’s true that I have always been inclined to read in common events hidden meanings, useful to reorient my personal trajectory. I think that this is one of the ways God speaks to us, leaving His fingerprint in the banal events of our existence. Up to us to be open to the correct interpretation . But now, I thought, since the beginning of this pandemic, God’s voice is louder and louder. It’s my impression. It’s my deep feeling. How can I read His message without putting myself into question?

And inevitably Governor Cuomo’s words  resurface in my mind: “Everyone is subject to this virus. It is the great equalizer,” the governor told reporters. “I don’t care how smart, how rich, how powerful you think you are, I don’t care how young, how old. This virus is the great equalizer.”

And suddenly I remember an episode, many years ago, in a Lisbon hospital, where a friend of mine, a medical doctor, received in the emergency room an African politician, just arrived from his home country, diagnosed with HIV AIDS.

Lying on the stretcher, the patient used his last energies to proclaim his importance to my friend, the doctor: “Please note! I am an important person! I am a political party leader in my country!…. A few hours later, he passed away. His glory was very short lived, indeed!

Death, the great equalizer!…

It’s in moments like this one  that I praise wisdom, sagesse. How does one reach the level of minimum understanding of what we are without  referring to something or somebody higher than life itself?

III – The Great Unequalizer

And .. poverty  the Great Unequalizer! – I immediately thought.  Another title of another news: “Harvard research: Impact of poverty begins in the womb, but it doesn’t have to.” And I continue reading a little more: “People living in poverty are at much greater risk to experience toxic stress, because the causes of stress in their daily lives don’t go away easily – the stress of having a roof over your head, the stress of food, the stress of having bills to pay, the stress of not being able to get out of that hole,” says Jack Shonkoff, a Harvard University professor of pediatrics and director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child. The physiologic results of constant worry include elevated heart rate and blood pressure and the release of stress hormones into the bloodstream – where they can cross the placenta and affect the development of the fetal brain.

“When you are in the kind of stresses that come from not knowing where you’re going to be living or where your next meal is coming from, the severity of the stress can cause us to actually shut down certain aspects of the brain,” explains Elisabeth Babcock, president and CEO of Economic Mobility Pathways (EMPath), a Boston-based nonprofit that aims to end poverty through scientific research and direct support.

The author emphasized: “The dangers of fetal exposure to alcohol, drugs and lead are widely known by now. But researchers have found increasing evidence of another potential threat to babies in utero: toxic stress. And, more specifically, the kind that’s churned up in a mother who’s struggling to make ends meet.”

IV – The disrespectful reality

Rich people are consummate builders of walls. Not bridges, but walls. Walls against the multiple incertitudes of life. Bank accounts and insurance policies to avoid financial surprises. Multiple houses in different countries to minimize political uncertainties. Cars. Private jets. And so on.

And then, the invisible enemy arrives… disrespectfully! Blind to borders, blind to social status , blind to financial solvability, how disrespectful indeed! The great equalizer!

The effects of the great equalizer will live the time of the pandemics and no longer. Dangers have very short memories!  (Photo: Rex Features in The US Sun)