I Know What a Leader Looks Like – These Men Are Just Bureaucrats

Day two of the official state of emergency in New York State, and, to my knowledge, public schools remain open. As I wrote last night on Instagram:

The colossal mismanagement of this pandemic by all of our elected executives is a scandal of epic proportions. When the Mayor comes out and declares that this may be a 6-month long ordeal and indulg[es] in war metaphors, we should ask him: Where the fuck were you two weeks ago and why are schools, subways, and, until today, even sports arenas open as usual? Through utter incompetence and negligence, the Mayor, Governor, and President have consigned all of us to a grinding few months ahead. We should and must demand better… Next week will be a very hard one in New York, but to my friends, loved ones, and fellow New Yorkers, and everyone struggling in the face of this crisis around the country and world, I send only love and strength.

I know what leaders look like; I’m fortunate to be surrounded by them in my life. The President, the Governor, the Mayor? These men are not leaders. They’re a kleptocrat, a technocrat, and a bureaucrat, and at least two megalomaniacs. At best, they’re grandiose functionaries, at worst, just actors haplessly playing parts.

Leadership would have entailed taking preventive actions as it become clear, in January or early February, that COVID-19 (hereafter: the disease) would not be contained in China, and taking urgent, commensurate action once it was determined that SARS-CoV-2 (hereafter: the virus) was circulating across the United States, and in New York State and City. I’m a private individual with no expertise in public health, but I do have a basic understanding of math, favor progressive independent media (Democracy Now! was sounding the alarm in early February that this would very likely turn into a global and national health crisis), and pay attention to what goes on in the world beyond our borders. From the moment it became clear – with the identification, early last week, of multiple people with the disease in Greater New York City, multiple people, for whom it was unknown from whom they had contracted the disease – national, state, and municipal governments should have looked to Italy, especially, and realized that without drastic, immediate action, we were in for a disaster.

Instead, our elected executives rightly cautioned against panic, promulgated good common sense measures for individuals to take, and otherwise, basically took a wait-and-see attitude. Well, now we’re seeing. Though I note that some people still seem to be saying something like: I don’t see what the big deal is. I’m not sick, and I don’t see too many sick people. And besides, even if I do get sick, I hear it’s not really that bad anyway.

Here’s what’s going to happen: The disease has, on average, a 5-6 incubation period. Odds are, it was circulating in New York well before the first case was identified on March 1st. Even if we take late February (when the Westchester lawyer would have contracted the virus) as the start of the disease’s spread here, we see that the number of cases has been growing exponentially (with confirmed cases nearly doubling in NYC just yesterday), and given the subsequent positive diagnosis in the five boroughs of people who had not traveled to “high risk” areas or had contact with any known sufferers of the disease, it’s clear that there must be cases (I think a great many cases) that have gone unidentified. This should come as no surprise, given that we’ve barely been testing, but coming back around to the incubation period, given our utter lack of commensurate action in the past week, and the geometric expansion in the number of cases, we can expect many new people to start showing symptoms over the weekend and next week. This is why the Mayor – in all his grandstanding and posturing – suggested that we could have “1,000 cases” by next week. It is my view that we already have well more than 1,000 cases, and simply haven’t bothered diagnosing them, and that part of the path forward to avoid a worst-case scenario is holding our thus-far-bungling elected executives to account, but its certain that testing for and identifying cases as many more emerge is essential.

Unfortunately, just as our current President managed to attack Hillary Clinton from the left on much of her horrible, right-wing, neoliberal record (on mass incarceration, welfare, and militarism, among other issues), we now see – outrageously – Rudy Giuliani attacking Mayor de Blasio for his mishandling of the crisis. It’s a sad state of affairs, but will likely get worse on the political front as the Administration in DC continues its xenophobic and racist attempts to label the pathogen a “Chinese virus”, its disaster capitalistic profiteerism becomes more brazen, and its exploitation of the crisis to do harm to its political enemies (and our society’s most marginal people, as is its M.O.) intensifies.

Those who have read some in New York City’s history know that we have a long tradition of pandemic and panic going back to the outbreaks of cholera, smallpox, and yellow fever that characterized much of the first three centuries of the settler-colonial project here. Then, as now, the rich decamp for their country estates while the poor are left to fend for themselves, and as those who are able to depart for the Hamptons, Connecticut, Maine, what-have-you, a sense now settles in that – in the name of keeping New York “open for business” – those of us who remain in the City have been committed, by our elected executives (who are not leaders) to a long, grim struggle against this pandemic.

Why have they done this, these men who are not leaders? I can’t say exactly, and although it’s easy to point to hubris and incompetence, along with a touch of bad luck (say, in the monumental faltering of the once-world-leading CDC), perhaps the reasons are deeper: That the Mayor’s wife evidently plans to run for Brooklyn borough president; that he’s been using his power to lay the groundwork for her run; and that he fears that closing schools would be widely and wildly unpopular among the New Yorkers who would form the base for her election, so is trying to make others force his hand before doing so. Who knows. I’m not here to hatch rumors, but it is painful, heartbreaking, and hard to understand, this rapidly unfolding train wreck.

But, coming back to what’s likely going to happen: Large numbers of people will start to fall ill in the coming days and weeks. As has happened in Italy, our hospitals and clinics will begin to be overwhelmed by the number of severely-ill individuals. This will create a rolling crisis of our healthcare system and convert these hospitals and clinics (and the makeshift facilities that are likely to spring up in schools and community centers) into new loci of disease transmission, putting healthcare workers and other patients at great risk infection. People giving birth, or seriously ill, or facing non-pandemic-related emergencies will face uncertainty, at best, regarding their ability to safely receive care at these over-strapped facilities.

Meanwhile, in the name of keeping New York “open,” our not-leaders have now consigned us to much of New York City being closed. Admittedly, they faced a Catch-22: To keep New York open, they had to close it immediately for a short time. Now – having missed the window for urgent action – owing to New York having been kept open, we’ll be closed and paying the price for a long time.

You can imagine what the rippling social, economic, and political effects will likely be. New York, too, has a long history of cruel recessions that leave much of its population desperate and begging the state, city, and non-profit sector for aid. As the pandemic spirals out of control nationally, and with anti-science kleptocrats at the helm in DC, its hard to imagine we’ll see much help, and as state and municipal budgets become increasingly strapped, well… That’s for another newsletter and perhaps for writers more informed than myself.

For now, we should be battening down the hatches and doing everything in our individual and collective powers to slow the spread (yes, flatten the curve) of the disease as the hour is very late, and, even in a best-case scenario, we’re in for some extremely hard times. Oh, and if you’re wondering what an actual leader looks like – a leader whose policy positions speak to exactly the most urgent needs we face in the teeth of this crisis – look no further than Bernie Sanders.

14 thoughts on “I Know What a Leader Looks Like – These Men Are Just Bureaucrats

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