international analysis and commentary

The New York experience

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One of the first things that changed for New Yorkers as the coronavirus pandemic hit was that more people started liking Governor Andrew Cuomo, sort of. It took a crisis, but many people stopped associating Cuomo to the state of the city’s subway system, which is perceived as underfunded, underperforming and unreliable.

The man who, prior to this emergency, was mostly associated with childish power spats with Mayor Bill de Blasio, and who always made sure New York City knew it was not his main priority (New York is a big state, and his attention to the constituents outside the city was always clear), suddenly became the grown-up to look to for guidance.

Andy Cuomo, governor of New York (left), and Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York City (right)

 

In a country with a seemingly unreasonable President, Cuomo became what New Yorkers needed to find reassurance. His daily briefs became an unmissable appointment, his slides—which sometimes read like surrealist poetry—turned into affectionate memes, and longtime critics confessed that even they were charmed by the Governor.

It was a telling sign of a need for leadership. The federal government conspicuously failed to provide consistent direction: the daily press conferences from the White House alternated between magical thinking, grim predictions and flip flops on the containment strategy. Further, the open animosity held by President Donald Trump toward New York’s leaders and the city’s overall liberal tendencies made him especially unlikely to ever be a source of comfort and reassurance.

And reassurance was needed. Everything we knew about COVID-19, even two months ago, as we got closer to sheltering in place, made it very clear that New York City was going to be hit pretty hard. No other big city in America has the same population density, or size. No other place in the country counts on a mass public transportation system carrying millions of people 24 hours a day (coronavirus is the first emergency in history that has managed to stop New York City’s trains for a few hours every night, for cleaning). Theaters, shows, parks, bars: New York City residents are used to being packed together in close proximity with strangers, which is foreign to most other Americans.

This wonderful, grimy city proved to be an enormous petri dish straight out of a coronavirus dream: Once COVID-19 got to the US, it was a major threat to New York City, and nobody knew it as well as its citizens.

One of the pandemic front pages of the New York Post

 

This is why those who had the privilege of being able to work from home started doing so before the official order closed all non-essential businesses, and why the Mayor was pushing for a shelter-in-place order days before it was put in place by the Governor.

In a way, the delay in the order, and potentially in closing the schools, was perhaps the biggest mistake made for New York City. Those days, in which the decision to stay home was left to the individual (or the individual’s employer), could have been crucial in better controlling the spread of the coronavirus.

Still, especially in the first few weeks, as the city’s trademark sound—very loud sirens—had become a relentless white noise through the day and the night, seemingly more New Yorkers than ever before listened —maybe even trusted—Cuomo.

Perhaps, as new investigations have found, the trust was misplaced: Cuomo and De Blasio both are responsible for delaying interventions that could have saved thousands, and the ego fight that had been the political comedy of the state ended in tragedy.

But the disagreements did not end there. US laws allow state and local governments quite a bit of autonomy, and both New York City and the state are fundamentally at odds, politically, with the federal government. They are bastions of the so-called “resistance”, and the crisis consolidated the widening gap between the federal government and states run by Democrats.

In many ways, New York City is unique in the United States, Yet at the same time it is a microcosm of the whole country. The virus might affect more people in numbers —at the time of writing, nearly 360,000 people have tested positive for coronavirus, and about 23,000 have died—but the traits are similar. Initial reports on the profiles of coronavirus patients in New York City have revealed inequality to be the preexisting condition most consistently associated with need for hospitalization. As in the rest of the country, he majority of people who developed severe complications from the coronavirus had at least two other conditions, the majority of which are chronic. Diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure: These put people at higher risk of COVID-19 hospitalization; they are also, crucially, the kind of diseases that are linked to lower socioeconomic status, and they are more common amongst African Americans, and other people of color.

Some, including Cuomo, had initially referred to the virus as a “great equalizer.” But if anything, it’s been a highlighter of inequalities. To live in New York City as the pandemic runs its course, is to see it as two cities: In one, there are those who have—remote jobs, large enough apartments and good health insurance offering telemedicine options. The other, looks very different and is proving to be at higher risk.

By and large, a certain socioeconomic well-being shields people. They are able to adopt better precautions, shelter in place. They can carve out time for kindness: Volunteering to deliver groceries, ordering in to help out neighborhood restaurants, supporting local businesses.

Yet behind them is an invisible force that makes isolation bearable: truck drivers, grocery store clerks (who barely make a living wage, and often do not have enough paid sick days to quarantine themselves), couriers, postal workers, warehouse workers and public transportation employees – who are getting sick at a higher per capita rate than healthcare workers.

Too many of the essential workers live at the bottom of the income ladder, bearing the weight of our collective functioning on their shoulders.

The coronavirus is ravaging the fabric of communities who work hard and have a restricted safety net, upon which we all depend, and it is showing us just how little we can do for them. In New York, as across the country, there are people who hardly have a choice to socially distance themselves because they need to keep doing whatever job they have. Many are immigrants, or people working minimum-wage jobs. They are sometimes demonized, and painted as taking advantage of the system, yet this time it is clear— they are essential, and the system does not protect them.

As with every great disruption, what happened holds the chance to correct a system that has long been showing its flaws.

This is arguably the most important crisis leaders—Cuomo, De Blasio, or even their opposition—will be called to step up for. The management of the coronavirus pandemic will continue, hopefully with fewer mistakes. But the underlying conditions that made certain pockets of the city, as they did certain parts of the country, so fragile in the face of this threat will demand the kind of solutions  and political leadership that go beyond clear press conferences and endearing powerpoint presentations.