Here’s My Story #8: A recently-laid-off New York-based design manager on finding her way home at the height of the coronavirus pandemic
In her own words
27 March 2020 has gone down in my history book as "Bloodbath Friday". That morning, at 9.30am, the company that brought me to New York — now the epicentre of the global coronavirus pandemic — laid off half its workforce. I was one of them.
It wasn't entirely unexpected. I worked for a flexible workspace provider with more than 200 locations globally. But as the world went into coronavirus lockdown, our offices were emptied out. "Business as usual is over," said our CEO in an interview published hours after.
So was my life in New York, I thought when I received the news, half-delirious from the insomnia I had in the weeks leading up to Bloodbath Friday. I saw it coming, but the dismissal was nonetheless shocking. A hundred questions fired in my head as the rug was pulled out from under me. What's next? Do I stay or do I go? And when? What am I supposed to do with my apartment, which I've only moved in two weeks prior? What about rent? How do I leave New York? Can I even get out of the country?
When in doubt, call your parents. Mum, bless her soul, was just as astounded when I told her what happened, but Dad was, thankfully, more pragmatic. We knew we've got work to do — calls to be made, questions to be answered. Under normal circumstances, there would be time to make such life-altering decisions and, perhaps, throw a little pity party. But time was what we didn't have. Airlines were cutting flights by the day, and I wasn't sure how long I had left to stay in the city till my visa, my severance pay, and, ultimately, my bank account, ran out.
I'm fortunate enough to have both Australian and Thai passports, but with strict border controls amid the pandemic, going home — be it Down Under or the Land of Smiles — wasn't quite as straightforward anymore. I called both consulates in New York for advice on next steps but to no avail. I scanned the embassies' website for information that would help me decide where I should go. I needed a "Fit to Fly" health certificate, for entry to Thailand at least. How will I get to a doctor in New York? Clinics are closed, and hospitals are out of the question.
As Dad looked into flight availability to Australia within the hour, there wasn't much else I could do but wait. Meanwhile, hundreds of the company's newly-axed staff were having a field day on Zoom, sharing laughs, memories, anxieties, sadness, and reassurances over plenty of booze (because, why not?). Turns out, one of them has a brother who's a doctor flying into New York, and she put me through to him so I could get medical clearance virtually (thank you). On that note, big-ups to the kind folks in HR, who placed me in front of the queue to answer and resolve all of my burning questions. Connecting with people in the same boat — a lot of whom I had hardly crossed paths with in the office — helped me find acceptance and a sense of lightness in the chaos.
But, of course, that didn't last very long. Anxiety hit me again in the afternoon as I struggled to get through to both the Thai and Australian consulates. When is the next flight availability? What questions do I ask when I get them on the phone? What should I do first? I chucked down another glass of wine, perplexed whether to laugh or to cry at the mess I was in.
The walls were closing in and I had to step out for a breather. As I walked out of my apartment block, I was greeted by the massive citywide cheer for frontline workers. People were shouting, hooting, clapping, banging on pots and pans, and honking from their windows, rooftops, balconies, terraces, and cars. The coronavirus might have brought the city to a standstill, but it hadn't stifled the community spirit of New York. I continued down West End Avenue into the phantom parade thinking, I'm really going to miss this place.
If you're a foreigner living in New York reading this (hi!), please reconsider your stay in the city. Healthcare resources are dangerously scarce. Hospitals are bursting at the seams. And with over 10 million now unemployed, the New York state labour department is overwhelmed with soaring claims. You're also likely to receive little support — if at all — from your home country if you're not on home grounds. So leave, without delay, if you can. It's a choice Americans currently do not have.
The next day, Dad (what would I do without you) called to say my ticket home to Australia was confirmed. I had yet to hear back from the Thai consulate, but it didn't matter at that point. My flight bound for Sydney was in three days, which meant I had less than 72 hours to uproot my life in New York. I made a list — I had to, for sanity's sake — of things I need to do while I was still in the city. Like, go to the bank. Run to the post office. Finish a ton of paperwork. Maybe not file my taxes. Pack nine months of my life into four bags. Decide what goes in. Donate the rest to charity. Finish those wines.
I'll never forget my last days in the Big (Rotten) Apple. My world in it had gone dark, but there were still glimmers of light from New Yorkers. The virus has brought out the kindness in humanity, and I was extremely lucky to be treated with humility — from my ex-colleagues, the bank teller and my Uber driver to the airport security and bartender at the airport — as I made my way home, riddled with uncertainty.
Forever and 22 hours later, I landed in Oz. I knew I had to be quarantined in a government-appointed facility (read: hotel) upon arrival, though I had absolutely no clue how that would pan out. As soon as we got off the plane, we were received by the police, doctors, nurses, medical staff for individual testing. There was no hostility, no meanness. After getting the all-clear, I was escorted by airport security to pick up my baggage before being ushered by the police to a military-guarded bus, which would take us to our hotel. All these sound almost criminal, but in some strange way, I felt safer than I was in New York.
As I'm writing this, I'm approaching the tail end of my 14-day quarantine in Sydney. It has been uneventful within my five-star prison. No doubt, I'm grateful for clean sheets, clean water, three meals a day, care packages from friends in town, daily friendly check-ins from the authorities, and Wi-Fi to stay connected with the people I love. But it hasn't been easy. The hours are as long as the evening shadows. When will this be over? What's going to happen when this is over? The world I knew is gone and murky waters lie ahead. I'm still far from home — another 14 days of isolation awaits as I move from Sydney to Hobart, Tasmania, where my family lives.
My life will restart again somehow and I honestly have no idea at the moment what the future holds. But if there's anything that these few weeks have taught me is that courage, compassion, and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is key to navigating change in life. We humans don't like change, but change we must. And whether this transformation turns out for better or worse — because who knows — I know one thing: I will be ready for it.