[OPINION] Dear Manila, lessons on the coronavirus from New York City

Romeo Romulo

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[OPINION] Dear Manila, lessons on the coronavirus from New York City
'At this stage, it makes more sense for Metro Manila to follow the lead of New York rather than its East Asian neighbors'

It’s 5 pm and I hear another ambulance siren outside my window. There have been so many since I woke up at 4 am that I’ve lost count. New York City is in a crisis, but you can’t tell at first glance. The streets are emptier than usual with people wearing masks and gloves, but there’s no immediate physical manifestation of a disaster. It’s only when you notice the constant ambulance whirring or step inside the hospitals that you realize just what the COVID-19 pandemic has brought upon New York. 

As of April 5th, New York has reported over 122,000 COVID-19 cases and over 4,100 deaths. These numbers will likely be way higher by the time you read this. This novel coronavirus has now been more lethal than 9/11. These figures are even more depressing when you stop to consider that New York is projected to lose over 16,000 human beings by early August. New York, and America in general, wasn’t prepared enough to handle this virus. Now we’re paying the price. But in spite of the already high death tolls, I found it remarkable to witness New Yorkers coming together in an attempt to make it right. 

Metro Manila will be next as it shares a lot in common with New York. Both cities have large populations, highly dense communities, and a stark divide in income inequality. The response of Metro Manila to COVID-19 also follows New York with the lack of available testing, people refusing to practice social distancing when space itself is at a premium, blundered government responses, and poor health systems. The COVID-19 deaths will rise. It’s not a matter of if, but when. At this stage, it makes more sense for Metro Manila to follow the lead of New York rather than its East Asian neighbors, who were more prepared and equipped to handle COVID-19. (READ: ‘Massive testing’ of coronavirus PUMs, PUIs to start April 14 – Galvez)

Building and utilizing existing architecture

Hospitals in New York City are filled beyond capacity. The city has commenced hospital construction in Flushing Meadows and the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. A week ago, makeshift hospitals were erected in Central Park and at a convention center. 

Figure 1. Makeshift hospital beds in the Javits Convention Center.  Angus Mordant | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Metro Manila’s hospitals are being similarly overwhelmed. Medical professionals are complaining about the lack of personal protective equipment leading to unfortunate, avoidable deaths. Some private hospitals can no longer admit COVID-19 patients due to the lack of capacity and space. If Metro Manila wants to stay ahead of the virus, the government needs to pursue alternative venues to house patients similar to what New York has been doing. The primary challenge is finding suitable public spaces and venues. 

It’s easier said than done, as Metro Manila’s poor urban planning is proving to be a costly mistake in this situation. Suburban sprawl has reduced the number of public open spaces within the metro. If you look at all the green spaces in Metro Manila through Google Maps, most are expensive golf courses and exclusive gated community parks. Both of these are inaccessible to the public. (READ: [ANALYSIS] A failure of execution)

This is a problem because not only are public open spaces suitable as venues to construct makeshift hospitals, but they also serve as an immediate refuge in emergencies and disasters. Ideally, one would need to be within 400 meters of any open space during an evacuation. Simply put, a lot of the denser areas in the city will not have access to this. 

The only alternatives are the large capacity venues (e.g. SMX Convention Center, the Araneta Coliseum, etc.) that are prolific in Metro Manila. Careful planning and design need to take place in these venues since they may not have the same mechanical and ventilation systems that health-care facilities need to prevent contaminated air from spreading. It’s also imperative to create proper screening clinics that allow suspected COVID-19 patients to get tested for the virus before stepping inside. 

Hotels can also be utilized at this time as well. These can lodge medical professionals directly responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Four Seasons in Manhattan is doing just that since 85% of hotels in the city are currently unoccupied. This is a great idea as it prevents health care workers from possibly carrying the virus home to their families. Not only that, their commute time will be severely cut down especially if they live outside the city. 

Data is beautiful

Recently, the New York City Department of Health has been mapping the number of COVID-19 cases by patient ZIP code. This data helps the city monitor the existing and potential hotspots for COVID-19. They also show how the virus has disproportionately impacted poorer neighborhoods. 

Figure 2 Map showing the patient ZIP codes. New York State Department of Health Website.

With an urban density surpassing New York’s, Metro Manila would greatly benefit from having comprehensive data and information to battle the pandemic. The government can properly designate which areas need to have more makeshift hospitals, medical personnel, and equipment. Those living in COVID-19 hotspots can take more precautions and safeguard measures to protect themselves and their families. (READ: PH coronavirus cases in maps and charts: What the data says)

A fighting spirit

Whenever I am on the threshold of hopelessness, I’m reminded of the words spoken by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at a recent press conference:

“We’re going to get through it because we are New York, and because we’ve dealt with a lot of things, and because we are smart. You have to be smart to make it in New York. And we are resourceful, and we are showing how resourceful we are. And because we are united, and when you are united, there is nothing you can’t do…”

I can say the same for us Filipinos. We’ve always branded ourselves to be a resilient nation, sometimes to a fault. We’ve experienced so many natural disasters throughout the years and always survived by leaning on each other. Realize that we have a lot more in common than what makes us different. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich, poor, healthy, sick, straight, gay, old, or young – by uniting together, we will overcome this pandemic. COVID-19 is not the end of our story. – Rappler.com

Romeo Romulo is a Filipino architect living in Brooklyn, New York. He received his Master’s in Architecture and Urban Design from Pratt Institute. Don’t worry, he’s isolating himself and is diligently practicing social distancing. 

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