The world has been watching New York City with bated breath, as they grapple with the worst tragedy their city has seen since 9/11. Coronavirus has affected the world in ways we are yet to fully understand, but for the 15,000 Australians in New York City, the experience is isolating, challenging and significantly different to the experience back home.
It is the 19th of May and Jo video calls me at 6:30pm NYC time, wearing a face mask on her daily walk. There are hundreds of people around her. Like her, they are all wearing masks. Fundamentally different to the daily walks Sydney-siders have been doing, this image is a confronting one.
The American Dream
Jo moved from Sydney to New York City in 2019 to follow her dream job, she lives in a one bedroom apartment with her boyfriend in the West Village. They were faced with the decision to return home with no job certainty or place to live, or ride out the worst of the virus in its American epicentre. She says:
“We felt it was safer for our job security and visas to stay here. It was a scary thought though, being stuck outside Australia.”
For Callum, he moved to NYC in 2015. Originally on a J-1 Visa, he has “worked incredibly hard to maintain a visa, set up a new life and new friends.” He has recently started looking into longer term options of staying in the city. His friends and family in Australia wanted him to return home, but with Trump announcing bans on migrants, he felt that “going home was almost like admitting defeat in a way, it just didn’t seem right.”
In Australia, the virus’ impact was mitigated by strict social distancing measures and the closure of borders. With just over 100 deaths nationwide, restrictions are easing every day. This makes it hard to fully comprehend the impact of the virus on a city as densely populated at NYC or in a country with a known death toll of over 100,000 people.
The New Normal
“In normal times, without a pandemic, NYC has this craziness, roughness, it’s so intense and you are completely overstimulated the entire time” Jo says. The juxtaposed silence is one of the more intense aspects of isolation in the city. For Callum “not being able to confide in friends in person, laugh and have physical interaction has been pretty difficult.” He continues:
“Every day feels like a rainy day.”
The toll on people’s mental health has been widely reported upon, so too has the devastation on the city. Callum says “I think it’s definitely worse than reported, as so many deaths aren’t being accounted for, mainly because of healthcare, or a lack thereof.” Jo agrees that the numbers are sobering, acknowledging how shocking they must seem from Australia.
Part of the charm of New York City is its strong sense of community, witnessed in the city’s response to 9/11. Jo has experienced this every night at 7pm, as millions across the 5 boroughs clap for front line health workers. She says “as we are all unable to physically interact, it’s the time people come out on their fire escapes, roads and parks. They clap and bang pots and all cheer, together.” The heart warming scenes are a stark contrast to the violent stockpiling at the pandemic’s outbreak.
The economic impact of the virus has caused unprecedented rates of unemployment internationally. Fortunately, Jo and Callum have both remained in their jobs. This has allowed them to maintain a routine and pick up hobbies to cope with the isolation. Like many of us back home, these are centred around cooking and running.
Jo had been an active runner before moving to the city, and had spent months training for the New York City half marathon. While the actual run was cancelled, she still ran the course while her friends cheered on from the sidelines. For Callum, he took up running when the gyms were closed. Saying that he “could only run 1 kilometre without stopping and in 2-3 weeks now can run 8 kilometres.”
This time of isolation has been challenging for the whole city of New York, but for expats across the world it has been exaggerated by their distance from comforts of home. For Jo and Callum, the experience has only made their love for the city greater. Callum finishes our conversation by saying:
“If I’m planning on living in New York City for the long term, I feel like I have to experience the absolute worst of the city to appreciate it fully at its best.”