A Petri Dish of Activism, and Germs
Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
A team from Union Health Center offered protesters
free flu shots on Wednesday and Thursday, though some declined, fearing a
By MATT FLEGENHEIMER
Published: November 10, 2011
The chorus began quietly at a recent strategy session inside Zuccotti
Park, with a single cough from a security team member, a muffled hack
between puffs on his cigarette. Then a colleague followed. Then another.
Soon the discussion had devolved into a fit of wheezing, with one
protester blowing his nose into the mulch between clusters of tents.
“It’s called Zuccotti lung,” said Willie Carey, 28, a demonstrator from Chapel Hill, N.C. “It’s a real thing.”
As the weather turns, the protesters in Zuccotti Park, the nexus of the Occupy Wall Street
protests in Lower Manhattan, have been forced to confront a simple
truth: packing themselves like sardines inside a public plaza, where
cigarettes are shared and a good night’s sleep remains elusive, may not
be conducive to good health.
“Pretty much everything here is a good way to get sick,” said Salvatore
Cipolla, 23, from Long Island. “It’ll definitely thin the herd.”
The city’s health department said that officials had visited the park
and that it would continue to monitor conditions with winter looming.
“It should go without saying that lots of people sleeping outside in a
park as we head toward winter is not an ideal situation for anyone’s
health,” the department said in a statement.
Dr. Philip M. Tierno Jr., the director of clinical microbiology and
immunology at NYU Langone Medical Center, said the conditions could
leave park-dwellers susceptible to respiratory viruses; norovirus, the
so-called winter vomiting virus, which can lead to vomiting and diarrhea
and which could quickly overwhelm the limited bathroom facilities in
the area; and tuberculosis, which is more common in indigent populations
and can be spread by coughing.
Even some camping in the park have grown concerned in recent weeks with
the living quarters. Damp laundry and cardboard signs, left in the rain,
have provided fertile ground for mold. Some protesters urinate in
bottles, or occasionally a water-cooler jug, to avoid the lines at
public restrooms. Food, from orange peels to scrambled eggs, is often
discarded outside tents.
“I’m amazed that in a park full of revolutionaries, there are large
contingents that can’t throw away their own trash,” said Jordan
McCarthy, 22, a member of the protesters’ sanitation team.
Demonstrators do maintain a medical tent, filled mostly with
over-the-counter medications and alternative treatments, like herbal
remedies. Some have spotted shamans walking the premises, Mr. Carey
said, though licensed doctors and nurses often take volunteer shifts in
the tent as well. Some strap flashlights to their heads, like workers in
a mine shaft, because the site becomes so dark at night. (The tent has
Miniature bottles of hand sanitizer have appeared sporadically inside
the park, though it is unclear who placed them there. Volunteers at the
medical tent also have on-call contacts in acupuncture, chiropractics,
massage therapy and psychotherapy, protesters said.
“We’re a triage clinic,” said Pauly Kostora, 27, a former licensed
nurse, as he rolled the tent’s single wheelchair into a corner. “We
don’t pretend to be a hospital.”
Many protesters recognize the threat the conditions could pose to the
optics of their occupation. Earlier this week, a man at an Occupy New
Orleans encampment was found dead in his tent — and had been dead at least two days,
authorities said. If similar news were to come out of Lower Manhattan,
some protesters have said quietly, the camp’s reputation could suffer
With the winter bearing down, though, organizers have tried to prepare.
The group has placed orders for large, military-style tents, capable of
holding about a dozen people, said Cynthia Villarreal, a member of the
information team. The aim is to move protesters out of smaller tents and
tarps and into the new constructions, which are far sturdier and
A team from Union Health Center in Chelsea came on Wednesday and
Thursday to administer flu shots for no charge, a welcome arrival for
many sniffling protesters, although some refused vaccinations, citing a
Although condoms are often available on-site, Dr. Tierno said the
protest’s evolution to private tents, from sleeping out in the open, had
raised the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. The site’s pounding
drum circles, he added, could lead to hearing damage. He compared
conditions at Zuccotti Park to those in a hajj — the pilgrimage to
Mecca, in which whole groups of people have come down with respiratory
infections in a short time — and those experienced by the flower
children of the 1960s, when, he said, communal living situations created
problems with sanitation and sexually transmitted diseases.
Ms. McCarthy, who said the month she had spent in the park was the
longest amount of time she had remained in one place in two years, noted
the health obstacles might be a point of pride for some demonstrators
who view sickness as the product of their sacrifice. “That’s what makes
an occupation such a powerful statement,” she said. “We will risk our
own health and give up completely our own comfort.”
Of course, contagions may not be confined to the park population. On
Wednesday evening, at the western end of the plaza, where walking paths
tighten by the day and an “Occupy Paw Street” station has been assembled
for protesters’ dogs, Mr. Cipolla solicited donations, shouting at
passers-by through a megaphone.
“We’re the biggest tourist attraction in New York,” he said. “And we shake everyone’s hands.”
Anemona Hartocollis contributed reporting.
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