His Waterloo, Our Chernobyl

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 07.53.31.jpeg
My partner thinks these two should partner for a joint ticket, a kind of Abbott and Costello routine

It’s clear as day that our efforts to stop the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City are failing. Yesterday, I went for a short walk to clear my head. I can’t say I was shocked at the number of people who were out (I was out, after all), but by people’s behavior, I was certainly discouraged. Someone we know and love from the neighborhood had been sent out be her employer on an errand that put her at grave risk of infection; she is a very young 60, but looked just as confused as we were (for my partner stepped out with me at first before going home) that she was still working. She commutes an hour by train and bus which she characterized as, at this point, “scary” as, indeed, it must be.

Along the water, people were jogging and walking far too close to each other; I saw one person spit and another sneeze without covering mouth. Generally, I love to be in a lively place when the weather is pleasant, but I felt both crazy and claustrophobic as all of these neighbors of mine went about their business as if, somehow, the virus couldn’t be transmitted as long as you were engaged in fitness activities outdoors. Personal training sessions were still happening on one of the piers, though the kids programming seems, at least, to have mostly petered off, and everywhere you looked, people were in close quarters with one another.

We don’t get it. We obviously don’t get it.

In reference to the graph below, we are certainly not hitting our post-16th best-case; the trajectory will likely fall somewhere in between the green curve and the blue curve, though I fear we’re trending towards the blue at this point (for regular updates on predictions and the official number of confirmed cases in NYC, feel free to follow me on Instagram; I’ve made my account public for the time being and have been posting and sharing stories on a regular basis about all of this):

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For more background on how this graph was made, read this post and this one.

We’ve all heard Margaret Thatcher’s sociopathic adage: “[T]here’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” Today, a great many of us who enjoy the privilege of self-isolating may be feeling, in a certain sense, that Thatcher was right – especially those who have children or have chosen to self-isolate with their parents or in-laws (or with their children or in-laws, to be cross-generationally fair). The world has receded outside and we find ourselves alone with our nuclear circles and the Internet.

As always, there are both signs for hope and for despair. I’ve been heartened and impressed to see my partner shift her entire business online in the matter of a few weeks. Every day, she says something like “today felt like a week”, or “that felt like three or four days in one”, and she’s been repeating the mantra: “It’s like starting a whole new business.” The ingenuity being shown by millions of people around the country and the world in the face of crisis is truly inspiring, as is the solidarity, and we can hope that beautiful new models and movements are today taking root.

On the flip-side, there is our President. The “His” in this piece’s title could easily refer to our bickering Mayor and Governor, but most of all, the pronoun refers to the man in DC. Now he is claiming that he foresaw the pandemic and rating his Administration’s response a perfect “10” while attacking Cuomo for not having done enough. It’s a fucking joke, of course, and my hope is that this will prove a bridge too far, but it’s been clear for some time that – beyond deny, ignore, downplay, dismiss, and above all things, don’t test – the strategy of the President and the heinous cabal of sniveling Rapturists with whom he’s surrounded himself will be to blame the Chinese, claim this was biowarfare, and daily try to rewrite history through an endless stream of lies. (Incidentally, if you don’t like liars, you probably shouldn’t support Joe Biden.) They could yet lead us to war in their desperation to avoid and evade responsibility for the debacle of our COVID-19 response, but my hope is that, while some of the President’s base may stand by him, with this disastrous, economy-ravaging, population-endangering set of colossal bunglings, he will, at last, have lost the support of most of the rich and upper-middle-class people whose allegiance to the man with the spray tan was, from the start, always least forgivable. To be deceived by propaganda, or eager to “give the finger to the establishment” is one thing, to vote for kleptocracy in the name of a lower tax bill, quite another. (And remember, the President was warned by his predecessor that something like this was even likely, and definitely possible.)

A few scattered thoughts as per usual: If you’re currently living under some state of lockdown, now is not a good time to have an emergency. You’re under lockdown because your locality’s healthcare institutions are in crisis, so please try to take good care of yourself and not to, say, accidentally, in your boredom, hurt yourself at home. This admonition, of course, goes doubly for all the people out there who do not enjoy the luxury of self-isolation and may face various physical risks in their jobs (as I’ve mentioned in two recent posts, New York’s booming construction industry doesn’t yet seem to have slowed down in the face of contagion), and triply so for the people in our prisons, jails, and immigration jails who are at great risk of injury and illness, and yet enjoy little freedom to protect themselves.

Finally, if you live in a place that has not yet faced the worst of this pandemic, please, please take this seriously. In New York, we are paying the price for not learning from the suffering of Milan, just as Milan is paying the price for not having learned from the suffering of Tehran, Seoul, and Wuhan, and we outside East Asia are all paying the price for not looking to the global leadership of Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, among others, in following best practices to prevent pandemic spread of novel pathogens like this one.

For context, the reported case fatality rate (that is, the death rate of people confirmed to have been infected) in Italy so far has been roughly 8%, while in South Korea, it has only been 1%. Healthcare systems matter, and so to do early detection and social measures instituted at scale and taken seriously by the entire population. People who haven’t read the harrowing story of the “super-spreader… patient 31” in Seoul should go read it now; for those of us in New York, I fear we’ll recognize chilling resonances, both with the origins of the Westchester cluster and with the now-unfolding situation in Hasidic enclaves in Brooklyn.

Please, avoid our arrogance and complacency and spare yourselves the near worst-case scenario into which we are now, here, descending. I’m continuing to hear accounts of people elsewhere in the United States (and even still here in the City, which is truly mind-boggling and nothing short of idiotic) who persist in seeing this as overblown and “no big deal”; it is not, and let me paraphrase a friend who lives in the UK (and is facing his own deep concerns about the bungling of the Johnson Administration there and the coming explosion of cases in that country) in pointing out that many people in the US look to Italy and think, oh, it’s underdeveloped. That can’t happen here. And to quote him directly now: “They think of Sicily and think Italy is… Old Europe. But Milan probably has a better healthcare system than New York.”

Please take this seriously. You fail to do so at your own peril and the rest of ours.

Predicting the behavior (in spreading through a human population) of a virus is one thing, but foreseeing complex human dynamics at a global scale quite another, and as I wrote yesterday, my energy is increasingly focused on: 1) mitigation strategies; 2) the needs of populations now subjected to immense shocks and stresses (especially those most vulnerable); and 3) strategizing for a just and sane post-pandemic world.

In the near-term, we should know soon in NYC if our fundamental systems and infrastructures will hold. I’m hearing worrying rumbles from friends of disruptions of food supply chains, but I remain – if not quite confident – more-than-cautiously optimistic that, although our elected executives have mishandled almost everything thus far to a supreme degree, they, and the true leaders who abound in this City, and the hard working people across the City and State who keep the lights on and the water flowing and the food on all of our plates will pull through this and make it possible for all of the rest of us to do the same.

Stay strong, stay sane, and death to fascism. Here’s to a better future.

5 thoughts on “His Waterloo, Our Chernobyl

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