State of Emergency?

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See-no-coronavirus, hear-no-coronavirus has been the watchphrase from Washington, leaving states, municipalities, and the private and nonprofit sectors to take the lead on the COVID-19 response across the US – in Lower Manhattan, we’d be more prepared if, as it was during the early days of the AIDS pandemic, St. Vincent’s was still a hospital, but at least as the condominium building it now is, it is lined with these lovely flowers

This January was the warmest in the Earth’s recorded history. This winter has been the warmest in Europe’s recorded history. The 12-month period that ended in January 2020 was the warmest such period on record. In New York, some cherry trees are already in full bloom (the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s Sakura Matsuri 2020 is scheduled for the weekend of April 25th), and we confront the strange possibility that, if SARS-CoV-2 (hereafter: the virus) does turn out to be sensitive to warmer temperatures, the extremely anomalous weather brought on by global climate crisis could actually spare those of us in the Northeast of the United States (and elsewhere) the worst of the pandemic – although barring a precipitous and unlikely bypassing of spring, a look at the current weather conditions in Milan, Tehran, and the San Francisco Bay Area – in each of which locations COVID-19 (hereafter: the disease) continues to spread – suggests that we shouldn’t expect, in New York, any immediate respite.

A few scattered observations: I’m betting sphincters are tightening all across the country as word spreads that vaping increases your risk of suffering serious complications from the disease. (They promised me the toxic nicotine juice was safe!) We can hope that fear on this front leads to less reckless (and hence disease-spreading) behavior on behalf of a set of individuals who might otherwise be inclined to take a cavalierly blasé attitude to the pandemic. As a keen observer summed up such an outlook – among young, healthy New Yorkers who seem to be embracing, in large numbers, the idea that this pandemic won’t really affect them, so why bother: “Who cares about old people?”

In the absence of widespread rent forgiveness and active efforts by state and local governments to support people and businesses hit hard, economically, by the spread of the disease, I fear we can expect to see a massive wave of small business closures and wage-starved New Yorkers struggling or unable to cover their basic expenses, and while it’s great that we have paid sick leave, at last, in New York City and State, for the many workers who do not enjoy access to it, I’m not aware of any program, operating at scale, to support them if they fall ill in the coming days and weeks, which poses both a problem of justice and care, as of further risk of contagion.

Very much part of the problem myself yesterday – as I worked a full day, and hence was around town, though, to my credit, observing, for the most part, recommended hygiene and social distancing measures – I saw throngs of people in Central Park, out along the Hudson, and in Washington Square. There was no sign that word of the emergency had reached the general population, and although optimists in my life have been hailing the responsible efforts of government and major employers to stem the disease’s spread, I wonder what effect the cancelled conferences, limited business travel, and working from home will have if people otherwise go about their daily lives as usual. May we not simply be shifting the risk around rather than significantly reducing it? (I have a blanket policy of not photographing strangers without their permission, or I would’ve included dozens of pictures of what the “emergency” looked like yesterday around the City.)

Given that, as I’ve written previously, the opportunity to actually contain the disease has long since been missed, our task now is harm reduction – to slow the spread so that the burden on our healthcare (and economic and social) systems doesn’t become overwhelming, and to work to limit the risk to the people who face the gravest dangers from the virus. As yet, I’m seeing very few signs of a coherent, widely socially-embraced strategy for confronting, here in New York, the pandemic. Fundamentally, the challenge now can be reduced to math (I encourage people to watch the excellent and accessible video, Exponential growth and epidemics), so, certainly, every little bit counts, but if we don’t succeed through disease tracking, quarantine, and widely-adopted social measures to slow the spread of the virus, we can expect this to get much much worse in the near term.

Some final food for thought: From whom did the original identified sufferers of community transmission of the disease in NYC contract the virus? We don’t know, which suggests the disease’s spread is very likely much wider than the current numbers indicate, and that our efforts at containment should be much more concerted.

8 thoughts on “State of Emergency?

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