Grieving Together in New York City
New Yorkers, United Nations staff and diplomats gathered today, virtually at least, to grieve for the pandemic’s many victims.
The online memorial was a chance to remember those we lost forever, as well as those still battling the debilitating effects of long-Covid, or struggling financially after losing their livelihoods.
It was an opportunity to pay tribute to the heroic medics who saved countless lives, as well as the front-line workers whose daily risks and sacrifices helped the rest of us stay safe.
For me, the event was also a reminder of how far we have come. In a year of darkness, we have held on to hope and have been rewarded now with the vaccines, our light at the end of the tunnel.
The occasion made me think back to this time last year when the WHO first characterized the crisis as a pandemic, sending shockwaves around the world.
I remember how the headlines suddenly felt uncomfortably close, especially when the normal sounds of traffic in my neighborhood were replaced with the wail of ambulance sirens rushing patients to the nearby hospital.
Then there were the poignant handwritten notes that appeared in the windows and doors of my favorite cafes and restaurants as businesses improvised a new normal.
One particularly dry sign stuck with me: “May your coffee kick in before reality does,” it read.
I recall the sadness I felt on reading a sign pinned to the door of a beloved haunt near Columbia University: “Unfortunately, we have no set date for reopening,” it said.
My favorite pizzeria meanwhile expressed the hope that “everything will be over soon, and we will return to normality.”
But normality didn’t return, and New York retreated into isolation. The fast pulse of the vibrant, bustling metropolis slowed to a murmur. The city went into hibernation as the world turned its gaze to the epicenter of the pandemic.
There were urgent internal discussions at the UN Headquarters. The Secretary General pushed for the toughest precautions to curtail the spread of the virus and protect our staff, delegates, and fellow New Yorkers. We closed the building and told nearly all the 6,500 staff to work remotely.
The building was still eerily empty when I returned recently, a year later. On the wall in the office the calendar was stuck at March 2020; the month time stood still.
The UN Headquarters are beginning to revive a little now. The cleaning and security staff have returned, and the café has reopened. But the complex just isn’t the same without the endless stream of guided tours, the delegates’ lounge filled with negotiating diplomats or the chatter of the cafeteria at lunchtime.
Before the pandemic, wading through the crowds from the subway at 42nd street every morning, I was always struck with awe at working in such a building, where issues of war and peace, social justice and equality were being decided.
The UN building is a part of New York, and my colleagues and I feel privileged to call ourselves New Yorkers. We feel a closer allegiance with the city than ever since the pandemic. When the city suffered, we felt its pain.
We were there clapping our appreciation for the healthcare workers every evening, we’ve been among those volunteering at food banks and vaccination centers. We were there to donate life-saving PPE to the city when it was needed.
Now, we are grateful to be here in New York as the vaccine is rolled out faster than most places globally. We admire the inclusive approach the city is taking to make sure the most vulnerable are prioritized, something we are hoping to see adopted around the world.
Everyone wants the pandemic to end as quickly as possible. We have the power to do that, but only when everyone gets access to a vaccine. That’s why we’ve launched our Only Together campaign, calling for fair and equitable access to vaccines around the world.
After all, as New Yorkers know so well, crises can be overcome only together. Only together can we make sure no one is left behind as we emerge from this nightmare. Only together can we return to the cities, the routines, and the people that we love.