Another short walk, another confirmation that our efforts are failing. I couldn’t have been out for fifteen minutes when I’d already seen snot-rockets blown, a cough uncovered, someone spitting, and multiple people sniffling when the strong advice repeated ad infinitum has been to please, please, please stay home if you feel or seem at all sick. More optimistically, I saw a man haphazardly dumping bleach on patches of sidewalk outside a condominium building (I assume he planned to spray that patch down with a hose) and two friends talking through an open window, one on the sidewalk, the other, inside, more than six feet away behind the screen.
Zooming back out, I’d say that there’s a reasonable chance parts of our healthcare system in the City are already starting to buckle by this weekend or early next week. I can say that dispassionately – if with compassion – but friends who are physicians report increasingly fraught conditions in facilities across multiple boroughs. (One of them informed me last night that current protocol is seven days asymptomatic or 72-hours fever-free for quarantined healthcare workers – which she was, but no longer is, per this protocol – to be back on the job; no testing, no nothing; that’s our current state of affairs, though, bear in mind, it is only the median incubation period that is 5-6 days, which means that fully 50% of cases take longer than that to manifest.) They are the ones in the path of this freight train and it is they, and patients unable to receive care, who will suffer the most should such a situation come to pass. At this point, sadly, it feels almost inevitable, and it is our elected executives from the President, to the Governor, to the Mayor who, in their different ways and from their different political positions, bear the chief responsibility for this nightmare.
On Democracy Now! this morning, Amy Goodman spoke of beaches in Florida still thronged with spring break revelers, and of the DNC’s decision to forge ahead with primaries (no doubt, in part, owing to the ironclad intention of the Democratic Party establishment to force through Joe Biden as the Democratic candidate); Tom Perez, head of the DNC, went so far as to threaten states that postponed their primaries with loss of half their delegates. Such actions will, of course, live in infamy. Projections more professional than mine increasingly suggest that millions of people in the United States are likely to die from COVID-19, and the death toll around the world will almost certainly climb into the tens of millions now that the pandemic has spiraled totally out of control globally.
Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary and Foreclosure King Steve Mnuchin, sounding every bit the payday-lender that he is, declared, “Americans need cash now. And the president wants to get cash now.” The President, of course, has a long history of saddling projects with toxic debt, then declaring not personal, but corporate bankruptcy, and fleeing the scene, as it were – leaving his contractors unpaid, his creditors in the lurch – but who could have foreseen that the US would be the next such of the projects he foundered.
Still, ICE continues to hunt down migrants in California, only now the ICE officers have protective wear. Against the virus that is, not against the migrants, who we all know are mostly nonviolent, hard-working people fleeing desperate circumstances (often driven by climate crisis and oftener still, of US-making) and seeking opportunity. Sadly, the xenophobia and hysteria fueled by the pandemic are being used as justification for further “hardening” of borders, and I fear we’ve only seen the beginnings of the use the Far Right will make of this global catastrophe.
A month or so ago, many commentators in “the West” were still smugly pontificating that the outbreak (for then, it remained only an outbreak) in China might “at last” “finally” prove Xi Jinping’s demise. The tables have certainly turned, for now – after Xi led a triumphant “People’s War” against the virus, and we sailed headlong into this shitstorm, eyes firmly closed – and for those of us who hope not to see an authoritarian future, there is no delight in the likelihood that the pandemic and its aftermath may mark the decisive point of inversion in the roles of China and the US in the world. Whether or not China properly emerges in a post-pandemic world as the planet’s leading power though, the escalating rounds of expulsions by China of US media workers and companies, and the US of Chinese in turn, certainly does nothing to advance the cause of truth.
So what do we have to guard against?
The President showed his hand almost immediately last week in proposing to cut the Payroll Tax, a nonsensical response to jolting economic slowdown, but a perfect way to go about privatizing Social Security. Now that the MTA is seeking a $4 billion Federal bailout – in the face of plummeting ridership, and on the back of a decades-long crisis of funding brought on, in part, by the disastrous (Wall Street-favoring) structure of its debt – we have to remain ever vigilant against the barbarians at the gate who will be eager to turn our collective suffering into their private profit. I’ll repeat myself from yesterday:
[I]n the face of ongoing climate disruption and neofascism on the march, only concerted global effort by the majority of us – a majority who want to live in peace and justice, and I think increasingly recognize that the choice is actually socialism or barbarism, or, to sidestep, once again, the risk of ideological discord, that we either choose public wealth and private sufficiency, or the world burns – and only concerted global effort will ensure that that burning does not happen.
Do you remember when institutions were still saying “out of an abundance of caution” when they closed “for a week or two,” you know, like about five days ago? Just staggering the pace of this, and it can’t have been more than a month ago when, riding a crosstown bus on 86th Street – when leaving my home was still something I did routinely – I noticed a man about my own age – like a kid thinking he is “secretly” picking his nose – surreptitiously vaping across the aisle from me. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind not doing that on the bus, and he looked at me and said, in a way that made clear that what he meant was “Fuck you”: “Oh, I didn’t realize it was bothering you.
Just then, the bus was reaching my stop, and as I disembused, I simply pointed up, like Babe Ruth after that iconic home run, at the clear signage in the bus regarding smoking, then asked the bus driver on my way out, “Hey, sorry to bother you. What’s the rule on vaping on the bus? No vaping on the bus, right?”
His eyes got big, and he seemed like he was ready to jump the protective barrier: “Is someone vaping on the bus?”
“Sounds like there’s no vaping on the bus,” I called back to the guy.
The incident would have ended there – I was about to step onto the street after all – but the guy sprang up in a rage from his seat, leaving his stuff behind, ran to the bus’s front still pathetically clutching his Juul, and began to scream at me, red-faced (he was, of course, white), “Mind your own fucking business!”
And when I suggested – half inside the bus, and half out, and directing my remarks more to my other fellow riders than to the unhinged hot-head – that it was my business when he blew toxic nicotine fumes into a closed container full of dozens of other people, he screamed at me again, “Go fuck yourself,” as he stalked back to his seat.
“Nobody should be vaping on the bus,” the driver announced over the bus’s PA system as the doors closed behind me, and I was gratified to see some other heads nodding.
Why do I write about this now? The incident stayed with me. So far down the path of privatization have we gone since the days of those iconic Apple adds with the dancing silhouettes (or that even more iconic Apple add from 1984) that many of us no longer have any sense of a public. One feels half like a tattle-tale or a schoolmarm for simply believing that we should have social norms that we honor and that we should give a shit about each other and the things we share in common – like the bus and the air in it, or Earth’s atmosphere and the vast but finite riches of the global commons.
Obviously, this guy belonged in an Uber – where he could’ve tormented a hard-working driver with his unaccountable behavior instead – but perhaps he was too poor to afford one, and perhaps that was the source of some of his rage. I’m spitballing here, of course, but perhaps he’d been promised an aspirational dream that was always a lie and an unattainable fantasy, that he could shelter himself from others, behave as he pleased no matter the circumstances, never be accountable to anyone, never be touched by the world’s dangers and sorrows.
Really, I have no idea about this guy. Maybe he was just having a bad day, but as Jay Smoove legendarily put it, when someone steals your wallet, you dont’ want to know why; you just want your wallet back. I don’t particular care why that guy acted like such a colossal asshole; I’d simply have preferred if he hadn’t.
This is a long digression in an urgent time, so to bring it full circle, what COVID-19 is doing rapidly, and the climate crisis is doing slowly, but at a far vaster scale, is gradually dismantling our very ideas of ourselves, our institutions, our most deeply held beliefs. You can’t gaslight a virus, and the biogeophysical laws and dynamics of the Universe do not brook dissent. We can learn, and adjust, and seek to live with some degree of humility and awe in the face of the miracle that is life on Earth, or we can continue to royally fuck it all up and pay the price as we, sadly, are doing today.