Unfettered Capitalism, But No Pandemic, Please

Next week will be one of the worst weeks of the century, thus far, in New York City. It is almost a mathematical certainty. Math and science teachers, at least, may have reason to rejoice, however – to the question: When am I ever going to use this in real life? They know have the answer: To understand a pandemic well enough to stop it.

Sadly, we have not understood a pandemic well enough to stop it. In fact, we’ve done almost everything wrong. The fuck-ups (for that’s what they are) started at the top – with our racist, kleptocratic, ignoramus of a president and the lackeys, yes-men, and sycophants with whom he’s surrounded himself – but in New York City, we can safely say that all of our elected executives have partaken of them. As usual, Governor Cuomo has got the better of Mayor de Blasio in the theatrics of executality – appearing decisive and self-possessed as he orders out the National Guard and employs barely-paid inmate laborers to produce New York brand hand sanitizer – while the Mayor has seemed uncertain, overwhelmed, and ineffectual, and still does. Neither of them has done a good, or even an adequate job, though.

This morning, the Mayor announced the closure of two schools (two! And co-located to boot) in the Bronx out of a total of 1,700 New York City public schools. The public schools will eventually close owing to the pandemic, but, in the meantime, keeping them open has no doubt done immense harm. As I’ve written before, we’re sailing into a perfect viral, climatic, electoral, political, and economic storm (the Census starts today, and I was pleased to receive our Census form in the mail), and in the nearly two weeks since the first COVID-19 (hereafter: the disease) case was confirmed in the City, not only have schools remained open, but lovely (and very early, climate crisis-driven) spring weather had much of the population thronging bars, restaurants, events, parks, public spaces of all sorts; concerts, shows, sporting events went on as scheduled; airports, train stations, and mass transit continued to operate as usual; and only in a panicked flurry in the last 24 hours or so have a series of major closures, suspensions, and cancellations made clear that the emergency has finally hit home: The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is cancelled; the Met, closedBroadway, shuttered; NBA, NHL, and MLB seasons, suspended; March Madness, cancelled; and, effective 5 PM this evening, on the Governor’s order, “no gatherings of more than 500 people will be allowed, excepting schools, hospitals, mass transit, and nursing homes.” Those are some big exceptions, though!

Since feeling compelled to dive into the SARS-CoV-2 (aka, “the coronavirus”, but hereafter, simply: the virus) conversation, I’ve emphasized that we’ve tried to have our cake and eat it, too. We want unfettered capitalism, but also no pandemic, please. It’s inane, but it’s true, and now we’ll pay the price for our collective inanity.

I’m no public health expert, but, given that most of us are now spending a lot more time at home, I’ll recommend some resources that I found helpful: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) – Research and Statistics from Our World in Data; this Medium post (which is, perhaps, a bit histrionic, but is thorough and accessible); Albert Wenger’s short blog post and the Flatten the Curve site (perhaps the best of all these resources; the only thing moving faster than the virus at the moment may be the jargon associated with it), to which he links; and this Twitter thread from Jason Van Schoor if you’re not yet convinced that the crisis is real (and for a sense, by way of the dire situation in Northern Italy, of what to expect here soon).

The next two weeks are going to be tough ones here in New York, just as recent and coming weeks have been and will be tough across much of China, Iran, Italy, South Korea, France, Germany – the list could go on for a long time – and in Washington State, California, and elsewhere around the United States, as well as on a few ill-fated cruise ships. (For many reasons, the cruise “industry” is one that should be let to die.) Whether the next two months are also devastating is up to us. We’ve done almost everything wrong to date, but the virus has an average incubation period of 5-6 days and illness generally lasts a few weeks, so a month of doing everything right, or at least much less wrong, can radically turn the situation around. Right now, there are many people already infected and contagious in New York; unwittingly, they have already been infecting others; as has happened in other hard hit countries, we will see a sharp spike in cases as all of those already-sick people become obviously so. This is a sunk cost, viral debt, damage already done, and the goal now must be to break this cycle as quickly as possible, which will likely require drastic action at the individual, institutional, municipal, state, and national levels.

Climatic debt has accrued over decades and centuries and is now coming due in the form of skyrocketing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and all the concomitant inclemencies; infrastructural debt accrues over years and decades, and has long been eating away at the solvency of our built everything; infectious debt, on the other hand, can build to stock market-devouring levels in a matter of mere days and weeks. (Nearly a third of the “value” on the Dow Jones has evaporated in a month, and it has only been three months since the first reports of the disease’s spread started to come out of China.)

The US response has been a clusterfuck, undeniably, as has been our response here in New York State and New York City. It doesn’t have to continue to be though, and therein lies our challenge for the weeks ahead. For the months and years ahead, our challenge is much greater still – to reverse the 40+ years decline of our infrastructure and public goods; the (rapidly accelerating) 200+ year descent into global climatic and ecological disaster; and – before neofascism consumes us – to chart a new course for our politics towards the possibility of a just and sustainable future (which is why I’m backing Bernie Sanders for president, and hope to see him dismantle Joe Biden in the debate on Sunday).

For now, I have a backlog of Jacobin, Nature Climate Change, and the like to work through, and pulled down a used and by-me-unread copy of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron as fit for purpose these days. Thank goodness our current pandemic is no bubonic plague, but I imagine I’ll learn something nonetheless. I plan to read 10 pages a day and if we’re through this by the time I finish, I’ll count our efforts – from where we’re now bottoming out – a success. My copy is 562 pages long.


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