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“You don’t see anything/ You just see lights”

NEW YORK CITY, UNITED STATES - APRIL 12, 2020: A mostly deserted Times Square in Manhattan during the pandemic of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). The board in the centre shows a message reading "Please, avoid close contact with people who are sick". As of 13 April 2020, the United States has confirmed more than 560,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus infection, with more than 104,000 confirmed cases in New York City. Maria Khrenova/TASS (Photo by Maria KhrenovaTASS via Getty Images)


A deserted Times Square in Manhattan, 12th April 2020

“Act like it’s a war,” governor Andrew Cuomo told New Yorkers in March as their city became the new global centre of the coronavirus pandemic.

War is heard before it’s seen and this one was heralded by wailing sirens throughout the day and night. There was nobody on the streets. Times Square was empty, Fifth Avenue deserted, Broadway ghostly. People struggled to describe the feeling of those dark, unseasonably cold days. They compared it to 9/11. And then added: “9/11 wasn’t this bad.” The city’s impossibly tall buildings were filled with people trapped in small apartments, struggling to hold it together as the death toll worked up to its peak in early April, when more than 800 New Yorkers were dying each day.

One April night in Brooklyn, 27-year-old Jakeem McKenzie flipped the switch and the sirens screamed. He steered his ambulance through narrow, vacant streets. Next to him sat ambulance captain Atma Degeyndt. They were on their way to another suspected case of Covid-19. “You don’t see anything or anyone,” said McKenzie, gesturing to the emptied-out city. “You just see lights.”

“Coronavirus came out of nowhere…It’s something that I never imagined in my life”

McKenzie and Degeyndt are two of nearly 60 paramedics with the Bed-Stuy Vollies, a volunteer ambulance corps based in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of north-central Brooklyn. It’s one of a series of citizen emergency services groups in New York that’s licensed to take patients to hospital and administer first aid en route. Sometimes people call them direct, sometimes they’re sent on jobs by 911 dispatchers.

McKenzie has been giving his time for free to the Vollies for six years. “An average night is a busy night. And in Bed-Stuy [it was] always shootings or stabbings,” McKenzie told me. “Now we’ve got the coronavirus going around and so everything is totally different. It came out of nowhere… It’s something that I never imagined in my life.”

The ambulance skidded into a dirty Brooklyn gas station. The 911 dispatch handler had sent two emergency crews, and the first team of paramedics was already on the scene, performing CPR on a stricken man. The man’s friends said he feared he had Covid-19 and was self-quarantining away from his family, sleeping in his taxi, spending nights in the gas station forecourt. Just 20 minutes before McKenzie and Degeyndt arrived, he had complained to his friends of trouble breathing. Worried, they phoned for an ambulance. When it arrived the first responders gently led him out. He was arguing, claiming to be fine, asking to be left alone. Then he collapsed.

The paramedics kept pumping his chest but the man did not respond. Degeyndt and McKenzie looked to see how they could assist and saw that the nurse performing CPR was not wearing a mask. It is believed that a number of healthcare workers contracted the virus in moments like this, when the patient was spraying infected droplets into the air. McKenzie quickly gave the grateful paramedic a mask and a face cover.

New rules for the overwhelmed New York health system stated that if after 20 minutes paramedics couldn’t resuscitate a patient, they were to take them straight to the morgue. “That’s one of the worst things to see: CPR done and nothing could be done because these people, it’s their time,” said McKenzie. The allotted 20 minutes came to an end. The paramedics pronounced the man dead in the parking lot of the gas station. It was a grim place to die.

In those days, when the health care system was struggling and the ambulance network was stretched to its limit, the Vollies were being called on more than ever. The radio in McKenzie’s ambulance crackled: another suspected case of Covid-19. McKenzie spun the steering wheel and put the sirens on.

Interacting with people infected with Covid-19 at their sickest is dangerous work, and both McKenzie and Degeyndt had already decided they were ready to risk their lives. “You always have that scare in your heart. But you can’t think of that when you sign up to do this,” said McKenzie. “That’s the chance I take to give back to my community.”

“Normally, I’m always excited to go out, right? Even though it can be dangerous,” said Degeyndt. “But helping people in the last two months during this Covid crisis, there’s an extra heaviness, a kind of darkness that looms over you. You’re not used to going out and thinking… I can die just because I don’t wear my mask correctly.”

This virus loved New York, a city where millions live on top of each other and subway cars were crammed with strangers breathing on each other. But the carnage needn’t have been so savage. In those crucial first days, there was bickering and dithering among the authorities, a mayor and a governor with competing political ambitions.

The first case of Covid-19 was confirmed on 1st March. On 2nd March, as the world watched the horror continue to unfold in Spain and Italy, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that people should “go on with your lives and get out on the town despite coronavirus.” Finally, the mayor’s aides convinced him to take the disease more seriously, to enact a “shelter-in-place” order. Governor Andrew Cuomo overruled him. “I have no plan whatsoever to quarantine any city,” said Cuomo. Three days later, Cuomo announced his own stay-at-home order.

The wealthiest New Yorkers began fleeing the city for their second homes. Meanwhile, unable to work and scared to apply for any government aid, large numbers of undocumented people (of which there are an estimated one million in the state of New York) went hungry. In New York City, which has more billionaires than anywhere else on earth, people were queueing around the block for free food packages distributed by charities.

Manhattan’s hospitals, some of the finest and best-resourced in the world, managed to pick a path through the crisis. Meanwhile down the road in Brooklyn, doctors and nurses were working without enough masks, gowns or face shields. Outside hospitals in the Bronx, nurses and doctors staged demonstrations, warning the rest of the city of the grim conditions they were working in. A photo showed nurses wearing black rubbish bags as gowns. As the poorer boroughs’ healthcare systems buckled under the strain, McKenzie, Degeyndt and others in the Bed-Stuy Vollies threw themselves into the fight against the virus.

The Vollies was started by local legend James “Rocky” Robinson, in the late 1980s. Robinson, a captain in New York’s fire department and a paramedic, began the organisation after years of witnessing ambulances avoiding his neighbourhood, Bedford Stuyvesant. “You would call 911 and have to wait up to two hours for a loved one to receive any type of medical care. And sometimes the ambulance wouldn’t come,” said Robinson’s son Antoine, who took over as president and commanding officer after his father died last year.

In 1988, Robinson’s niece was struck by a car and the ambulance was so slow to arrive that she died on the way to the hospital. It was at the height of the area’s crack epidemic, when paramedic crews were sometimes scared to enter Bedford Stuyvesant for fear of violence. “And he looked at that and said: ‘You know what? Why can’t I start a volunteer organisation in my own community and make sure my people are taken care of?’” said Antoine.

Robinson bought scanners and listened for 911 calls. “He would respond to all these emergency calls over the radio and he would run on foot. And oftentimes he would beat the city there and would save these people’s lives,” said Antoine. Robinson found an abandoned lot where sex and crack were sold between rusty cars. He towed away the cars and put in a trailer that would serve as the Vollies’ headquarters, defying the dealers, pimps and prostitutes. The headquarters is still there, on the corner of Greene Avenue and Marcus Garvey Boulevard. He raised money, bought an ambulance and brought the time for emergency calls to be answered down from half an hour to just a few minutes, eventually gaining official recognition.

“He started recruiting reformed alcoholics and drug addicts and people that wanted to change their life, people that needed another way out. People that needed a second chance. A third or fourth or fifth chance,” said Antoine.

Men like McKenzie. “I went upstate [to prison] when I was 16 for selling drugs,” he told me. In prison, McKenzie thought about his father, a first responder who climbed the stairwells of the World Trade Center on 9/11 when McKenzie was still a child. “On 9/11, it stuck in my head how he left and told us he might not come back and gave a kiss and told us he loved us. And I’m like, why would you want to do that?”

Once out of prison, he understood: to serve others. He joined the Vollies. Antoine trained McKenzie to become an ambulance driver and first aider. McKenzie would later repay the Robinson family: Antoine’s brother was shot in 2019 and it was McKenzie who treated him. “Jakeem came in and he was able to save his life,” said Antoine. “What better reward can we have than that?”

On 20th April, McKenzie was getting ready in his apartment in Bed-Stuy for another night patrolling the streets. Outside, the sirens screamed. His eight-year-old daughter Nc’Kayla was filling in a colouring book. Her hair was braided, a rainbow of beads on each lock framing her face. Like every other child in New York City, she hadn’t been to school for six weeks. “If we do go back to school, my friends and me will be [so] happy and excited to see each other,” she said.

As McKenzie was volunteering on the streets of Bed-Stuy his daughter had tested positive for the
virus. “Every day I was seeing it on the streets. And I didn’t expect for it to happen to my own daughter,” he told me. For two weeks he cared for her. Some days she wouldn’t eat. Some days she woke up with a fever. “I just wanted to just take her pain away. Let me have it and not her. But there was nothing I could do. Just be there for her.” Finally, she recovered and Jakeem was tested – negative.

Back in his apartment McKenzie said goodbye to his daughter and headed out. He got a call: a man in his sixties was having trouble breathing. The man’s family said he’d isolated himself in his bedroom for days. It sounded like Covid-19. McKenzie and Degeyndt dressed up in their anti-Covid gear: full gown, covers for their shoes, a mask and face cover. They spoke to the man in his bedroom: he was obese, bedbound and barely conscious. He mumbled. The family said he had a condition, but it was not clear what.

With assistance, the man was helped into the Vollies’ ambulance. McKenzie took off for the hospital. In the back, Degeyndt talked to the man to keep him conscious. He stopped answering. Degeyndt shouted to go faster and McKenzie sped up. Wailing sirens speeding through empty streets. They dropped the man off, handed him over to the hospital.

“He was in very serious shape,” said Degeyndt. “His oxygen levels were extremely low. And that’s just scary. His heart was all over the place. His breathing was too fast.” But there was no time to follow up and find out what happened to the man. There were always more calls to attend.

By 1st May, around 20,000 New Yorkers had succumbed to the virus.

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