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July 15, 2020
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Petra Gelbart: COVID-19 can quickly get out of hand and spread to those who believe they are immune

22.4.2020 9:55
Petra Gelbart
Petra Gelbart

What does the COVID-19 pandemic look like in a place where businesses and schools remain open and almost nobody wears masks? Romani community member Petra Gelbart reports from New York City.

Report from a closed New York

My husband, our three children and I are living at the epicenter of the current pandemic, near a hospital where dozens of people are dying of COVID-19 every week. Just one month ago, nobody suspected what was on the horizon.

I have been working as a musical therapist in a treatment facility for people with chronic illness, and even though I adjusted the way I came into physical contact with patients and the frequency of that contact from the beginning of March, there were no special measures introduced here, to say nothing of using gloves or masks. Here in New York, to this day, just a fraction of those infected with the novel coronavirus have been tested and are being tested, but those who have fallen ill reportedly represent just a handful of those who actually carry the virus.

I fell ill on 10 March and I was not able to get a diagnosis of probable COVID-19 until more than a week later, when it was already difficult for me to breathe because pneumonia had set in. I am 41, I don't smoke, and my lungs are otherwise healthy, so the course that the disease took rather startled me.

The day before the virus began to shorten my breath, I still believed I would soon be healthy and symptom-free. I had planned not just the online continuation of several of my work obligations, but also volunteer activity in the form of music classes for children.

I wanted to provide aid to parents who had decided to keep their children home even though the schools had not yet officially closed here. Fortunately, those online classes happened in the morning, when I could breathe much better than I was able to in the afternoon or evening, but even so I had to stop carrying out my own parenting and work duties for a time because I was unable to even speak properly for about six hours at a stretch.

I performed the musical therapy breathing exercises that I know so I would not begin desperately gasping for air. I also regularly dreamed of being able to use an oxygen tube during that time, but there was not enough room in the hospitals that we could visit to make such an excursion to get that equipment.

My life was never immediately in danger, so if I had gone to the hospital at that time, I would just have prevented somebody who urgently needed care from receiving it. It seems a bit embarrassing to me to describe the situation so dramatically, but unfortunately this is actually how it is here.

My wish is that everybody who believes "it can't happen to them" will read this piece. After three weeks of this illness I began to feel better, but at the same time it was clear that if a person doesn't get experience the lightest version of COVID-19 - i.e., without developing pneumonia - it takes several weeks before that person begins to function normally.

The doctor told me that it was only now, several weeks into the disease, that I would begin to cough up everything that had accumulated in my lungs. By then the local government had closed almost all businesses and instructed New Yorkers not to go outside unless it was unavoidable.

It was already too late: The number of confirmed cases in New York City alone shot up to 50 000, and still just the really difficult cases and only some health care workers have been tested and are being tested. What's more, doctors here are reporting that even if a patient is infected with the virus, as many as 30 % of the tests will show a false negative result, for various reasons.

The actual number of infected people is many times higher than the numbers reported, in any event. I was never tested. for example.

After the first week, the symptoms of COVID-19 in my case were unmistakable: Loss of my sense of smell, a constantly slightly elevated temperature, a dry cough, pain in my thoracic area (absolutely different than when one has bronchitis, for example) and above all, the inability to either exhale or inhale fully. What can we conclude from all of this?

This pandemic can get out of hand anywhere, quite quickly, and spread among people who believe they are immune because there are so "few cases", who believe this is "not very dangerous". In our part of this city alone there are now hundreds of people dead from this during just a couple of weeks, many of whom were healthy and working up until they caught the disease.

Here in New York the hospitals are collapsing and there are refrigerator trucks parked on the streets outside them because the morgues do not have enough room for all the corpses of those who did not survive COVID-19. What am I most afraid of now?

People are still continuing to believe anonymous "doctors" on Facebook and what they are saying about the pandemic, instead of listening to authorized scientists. No, you cannot prevent COVID-19 just by drinking water regularly or in any other way than by complying with all of the public health rules now in effect.

Visits to your aunts and cousins must immediately end, because the infection is frequently spread by people who do not suspect that they are infected (especially children). I feel terrible when I reflect on how many people I probably infected myself before I, too, suspected that I could have the virus.

Fortunately, currently there are new recommendations that people wear face masks even here in the USA, a prevention method that my mother had already taken into her own hands long before the officials approved of it. She educated people and sewed a respectable number of face masks for her neighbors, her acquaintances at church, and for health care workers in several facilities, and she won't be stopping any time soon.

In the Czech Republic, in the meantime, my grandmother also joined the effort and delivered a bag of face masks she had sewn to the local council. Wearing face masks does not mean people should be spending time together, it just reduces the risk of infection, for example, among customers in a shop.

In conclusion, what pleases me is to see how people are providing each other aid, how health care workers, including Romani ones, are doing all they can to save other people, how volunteers from all ethnic groups are sewing face masks or delivering food. It pleases me to see Patrik, my son, who does not have an easy situation himself, dropping everything to pick up a musical instrument and cheer up 20 New Yorkers who are terrified by performing for them online.

First published in Romano vodi magazine.

Petra Gelbart, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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COVID-19, Petra Gelbart, RV 1-2/2020, USA



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