That happened fast. Work hasn’t stopped yet on the Chipotle mansion, and New Yorkers are still briskly giving directions to strangers this morning (plus drivers seem to think that the state of emergency has made stop signs optional) but a frightening new reality can be felt setting over the City. It’s been hard to keep pace with the brutal and breathtaking speed of this pandemic, and I believe it’s left almost all of us wondering and a bit mind-boggled. Was it just last week? Was it just yesterday?
Part of the problem is that, as with climate change, in a way, even in the present – here in a New York City increasingly reeling and today, for the first time, waking up to public schools, restaurants, and bars closed – we are living in the past. Much of the City’s population is in a state of shock, having finally been traumatized out of their denial, but think how much worse their shock would be if they realized not how bad it looks, but how bad it is. As with climate change – wherein greenhouse gases emitted over decades and centuries accrue in the atmosphere to work there slow transformation of Earth’s everything – so too, with SARS-CoV-2 (hereafter: the virus), we have already, in the past, committed ourself to a future that looks very much different and worse than the already daunting present. With respect to climate change, the lag is years and decades. With respect to COVID-19 (hereafter: the disease), merely days and weeks.
Still, it is useful to reflect. I first learned about the outbreak of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan in early January from one of Bill Bishop’s (excellent) newsletters. Through the month of January, I remained convinced that – like SARS and MERS before it – this new disease would be contained. Only at the end of January did I begin to worry, as I learned that – unlike SARS – this disease was contagious even when people were asymptomatic, so the fever checks that had worked so well in 2003 were not working so well in 2020. By early February, I’d accepted that this was not like the seasonal flu, and that there was a very real risk this disease would be coming to New York. Still, I in no way foresaw quite the ferocity of its onset – or at least, I didn’t foresee what it would feel like, this tidal wave of human suffering. By mid-February, my partner was preparing for the potential implications to her business of pandemic reaching the City, and I was gradually stocking up on essentials against the possibility of events the shape of which resembles those of our present. By late February, I was certain that the disease was already here and circulating.
Then it arrived in earnest – which is to say, officially – on March 1st, and there followed an eery period that to me felt like the storm before the calm. A collective and growing frenzy before the long, quiet, and bitter months that now stretch out before us. How did it come to this? Was it only a week ago?
It was, and my recent posts show a record of my evolving perspective. On February 27th, I foregrounded the similarities between pandemic and climate crisis, but continued to focus, as is my practice, on the latter. Generally, I only write one post a month. In recent months, it’s been more like two or three, as I’ve been preoccupied with the Democratic primaries and the 2020 US presidential election. Then starting on Sunday, March 8th – as it became clear to me that our elected executives were, through hubris, incompetence, and unpreparedness, massively bungling the response, and that New Yorkers, at large, remained largely in denial – and since, I’ve been writing in a feverish rush.
On the 8th: “Am I afraid of the disease personally? Not particularly, but I certainly don’t want to get sick. Do I fear its potential consequences? I’m terrified. And you should be too.”
On the 9th: “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… Given that… 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… 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.”
And later that same day: “I’m also continuing to hear people compare this to the flu. I’ve previously done my small part to debunk the idea that [this disease]… is akin to the seasonal flu, but if people are referring to the flu pandemic of 1918-1920 (that infected something like one quarter of the world’s population and killed a low single digit percentage of the same), then, perhaps, they are closer to correct. We can hope for a different and less dire outcome in this instance, but only to the extent that we take the disease and our efforts to reduce the harm it is causing seriously.
On the 10th: “To date, New York City public schools remain open, but an increasing number of private schools and universities have closed/gone to all online classes, and the City has made clear that part of its reasoning in keeping schools open is that closing them puts such a heavy burden on many families. This refusal to close schools strikes me as the municipal version of waiting to go to the doctor until you’re so sick you end up in the emergency room, and I fear that failure to take significant measures now will lead to more suffering (and an even heavier burden) later. But this is a polarizing subject, and I continue to hear many well-informed individuals opine, basically: What’s the big deal? Why is everyone overreacting? And, to be fair, if schools were to be closed, but everyone continued otherwise behaving as normal, the impact on slowing the disease’s spread would likely be limited.”
On the 11th (in response to Super Tuesday II results): “Short and sweet tonight, as my focus has obviously been on the pandemic, our flat-footed response to it, our failure to grasp the urgency of acting now before it spreads more broadly, and what we can learn from our response to [this pandemic] about our failures to adequately confront global climate crisis, but I’ll just add my voice to the chorus: If Biden is the Democratic nominee, I fear he’ll be eaten alive in the general election. If he loses, I’m almost certain the Democratic establishment will, once again, blame Bernie Sanders for the loss rather than look in the mirror.”
On the 12th: “Cancellation of the Parade will be to [this] disease… and Mayor de Blasio what cancellation of the Marathon was to Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath and Mayor Bloomberg – the moment of reckoning when an elected official confronts and publicly acknowledges the fact that we are no longer in a business-as-usual scenario – and I expect/hope that closure of the public schools will follow, though, in the meantime, significant damage has probably already been done by keeping them open. And why did we keep the schools open? Because they provide essential meals for hundreds of thousands of young people everyday, and otherwise-unaffordable childcare for hundreds of thousands of working New Yorkers. But is that the way it should be? What if we had functioning social welfare systems? A public health system that was properly valued and funded? Universal childcare and paid sick leave? Medicare for All? Would we still be facing the predicament we now face? Great that New York State is offering state employees two weeks paid leave if they are “quarantined or in isolation due to #Coronavirus,” but what about creating opportunities for people to avoid getting sick in the first place?
And later that same day: “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.”
On the 13th: “Leadership would have entailed taking preventive actions as it become clear, in January or early February, that …the disease… would not be contained in China, and taking urgent, commensurate action once it was determined that… 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.”
On the 14th: “What the climate crisis is laying bare slowly and the current pandemic, quickly, is the profound state of decay in the United States. More than 40 years of neoliberalism and our increasingly parasitical form of capitalism have hollowed out what was once, but is no longer, the richest and most powerful country in the world. Rich, how? Powerful, in what way? Yes, we still have the largest nuclear arsenal and the world’s most-over-funded military, but to what end? To prop up the petro-capitalism that is destroying our collective hope for a future? We have become like the alcoholic and abusive old patriarch, the over-the-hill slugger who still has a mean right hook, but has grown slow and clumsy and is falling apart inside. Age claims all of us, but for those who only believe in force, what they have lived by, so, too, by they die, even if at their own hands.
We have monumental work ahead of us. We should confront and overcome the fast crisis of the pandemic, and then, with the same remarkable sense of urgency, at last address the slow, defining, once-in-a-civilization crisis/opportunity of global climate crisis. It could mean a world less broken than the one that we currently inhabit, but – like confronting [this disease] – it will take concerted effort from all of us.”
And that evening: “Panicking never helps, so please don’t panic, but by the end of next week, New York City will likely be shut down.”
And yesterday: “If these numbers are anywhere near correct, then we could be looking at ~100,000 total cases… in New York City by next weekend. New York City has ~20,000 total hospital beds and 5,000 ventilators. Given that ~20% of… patients require hospitalization, and approximate 5% of patients require intensive care, we could be at or beyond the capacity of the City’s medical system by this time next week. This is why the idea of flattening the curve has become ubiquitous in recent days; unfortunately, we’ve likely missed the opportunity to flatten it enough to avoid a real crisis, but what we do in the coming days will determine how bad that crisis gets. Every day we delay, this gets worse.”
And now? We have a long, slow, grueling struggle ahead of us, the ramifications of which, around the world, it is impossible to foresee. I do not think it is advisable to compare it to war, as this is a struggle that has to be conducted collectively, with love, in community (which, given the call for isolation, is supremely ironic and will no doubt reinforce the dominance of the data monopolies), and centering the individuals, populations, and communities hardest hit by the health, economic, and social impacts of the pandemic. These past two weeks have been dizzying. The next two will be more so, and we have to brace ourselves, and do our best to stay healthy of body, strong in spirit, and sane and loving to ourselves and each other as we come through this.