Commentary: Grief, by numbers

©New York Daily News

Mayor de Blasio arrives for press briefing at Bronx Collaborative High School in New York on August 26, 2020. - Lev Radin/Sipa USA/TNS

Each year, New York City releases data in an annual Mayor’s Management Report that’s supposed to account for how well city agencies are performing. This year, more than any in recent memory, that report helps us make sense of what’s happened and still happening to New York. The statistics form a snapshot of our collective anguish — a sense of the extraordinary breadth and scope of what we’ve lost to the coronavirus.

The report shows that 65,712 New Yorkers died between July 2019 and June 30, 2020 — 34,748 more deaths than the previous year. The death rate in New York City increased 112%. In a single year. The virus is the “largest mass fatality incident in modern NYC history,” the office of the chief medical examiner officially declared.

Cremation requests increased 62%. The medical examiner received 16,115 such requests between March and June this spring — a number nearly equal the total number of cremation asks received in the prior year.

Only (only!) 23,767 of our fellow New Yorkers were officially killed by confirmed and presumed coronavirus cases, which leaves 10,981 additional deaths unaccounted for.

What killed nearly 11,000 extra New York City residents between July 2019 and June 2020?

The Mayor’s Management Report shows the number of 911 calls for cardiac arrest or choking increased 25% in fiscal year 2020 — 32,831 calls. New Yorkers’ hearts were breaking.

People, afraid of the virus, stopped getting preventive health care. The rate of eligible women getting recommended mammograms to screen for breast cancer dropped more than 10% through June this year, a decrease caused by “patients avoiding health care institutions for routine appointments due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Fewer HIV patients stayed in treatment. Fewer patients receiving behavioral health treatment went to follow up appointments. Fewer people were screened for sexually transmitted infections. Fewer condoms were distributed.

Everywhere are the vestiges of those months of interrupted happiness. The data agree.

Some of the city’s current fiscal problems correlate directly to the cessation of our lives as we knew them, our dreams and plans on hold, indefinitely. Budget documents show the city expects to have lost $634,000 in revenue through June 2021, from issuing fewer than anticipated marriage licenses.

Those licenses cost $35 each. That’s 18,114 weddings canceled or postponed.

Income from parks concessions, red carpet premieres, movie filming permits, street fairs, parking meters — the commerce of busy, healthy street life, fell off a cliff.

One area where the city earned more revenue than anticipated? The extra $804,000 the Department of Health received from “higher-than-expected revenue from the issuance of Death Disposition permits as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.”

New Yorkers are struggling. Even with some businesses beginning to reopen, 689,000 jobs have been lost in the last six months.

The number of New Yorkers seeking cash welfare increased for the first time in five years. After three years of decline, the number of New Yorkers applying for food stamps increased nearly 8%, tripling in March and April as the unemployment rate skyrocketed. As virus cases dissipated, some New Yorkers turned on each other — the murder rate is up 37% in 2020 compared to the previous year.

This is not an essay about leaving New York, which even on the hardest days, is the only place I would ever live. This is an essay about the importance of acknowledging what we’ve been through and are still experiencing, together.

For months I’ve struggled to find words to describe what it’s been like to live in New York City, the greatest city, during the pandemic. In March, the streets grew so quiet you could hear birdsong. Cars were so scarce that I stopped observing crosswalk signals. Ambient music, wafting above bars in the wee hours, vanished. The only constant was the nonstop wail of ambulance sirens. When tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets to protest George Floyd’s murder, the anxiety, the energy, of so many people reemerging after months locked inside, was kinetic, electric.

In July, as virus cases receded, the sight of restaurants’ improvised cafes along sidewalks that were void of human life just weeks earlier brought me to tears. I am overjoyed now, to see long lines at the coffee shop, to get stuck in traffic, to be able to browse in a bookstore.

My fear and worry and love for this place has felt, at times, like actual pain in my heart, so sharp and so constant that I believed, more than once, that my own heart would actually break.

We have come through something unimaginably horrible, and the city is starting to breathe again. But what does so much strain, so much death and loss, do to a city?

I thought about those famous lines from Langston Hughes, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore — And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over — like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Laura Nahmias is a New York Daily News editorial board member.

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©2020 New York Daily News