Another beautiful very early spring day in New York City, and I’d say my optimism about the population of the City at large embracing the seriousness of the pandemic and the measures necessary to counter it was sadly misplaced. The streets remain surprisingly full, and many people – the younger, the more so – don’t seem particularly concerned about social distancing to judge by their behavior in public. Meanwhile, the reports from Elmhurst Hospital are apocalyptic. Such is the fundamental disconnect of a situation that unfolds so unevenly.
I remember walking out into the street the morning after Superstorm Sandy swept through New York. We’d received a robocall from ConEd – that Monday that the shelter-in-place order was in effect – informing us that there was a possibility our power would be preemptively shut off around 8 PM as a precautionary measure to prevent damage to the electrical grid. Lo and behold, around 8:30 that evening the lights flickered, then went off, and my partner and I set aside the impossible puzzle we’d been working on, lit a few candles, and settled down to read by candlelight as they did in the days of yore – something like that.
All to say, we were surprised to wake up the next morning and find that the power was still off, and only gradually, as we meandered a few blocks through the neighborhood, greeting people and overhearing snippets of conversation, did we begin to piece together that there had been no planned shutoff; that a substation had “exploded” (that was a startling word to hear that morning); that the Subway was entirely shut down; that the power might be off for “a week or two” (those words were even more startling); and that buildings taller than six stories were entirely without water. Already, there was talk of elders and people with mobility issues stuck high up in now-immobilized towers, but it wouldn’t be until later that day – once we’d walked up to 34th Street and temporarily joined a cluster of other wi-fi-seeking Downtown folk outside the first Starbucks with power we encountered – that we’d read of the devastation in the Rockaways, on the South Shore of Staten Island, in Jersey City and Hoboken, and north and south from the City along the New England coastline and the Jersey Shore. We were lucky in many respects, but most immediately, in that we both worked uptown, and I belonged to a gym at that point that was above the dark-line, and for that week, we took to showering, charging our devices, attending to our inboxes, having dinner, seeing a film in the vicinity of that gym near Lincoln Center – basically anything we could do to forestall our return to the dark-zone – before finally, reluctantly, venturing back down into that eerie expanse of darkness and silence that we called home.
Our situation was a very easy one. We still had water. We still had gas. The power outage only lasted six days. And all through it we were safe, well-fed, and otherwise supplied with more or less everything that is needful for human life. Our biggest problem was that, at night, it got pretty cold. Even so, the experience was a jarring and deeply unnerving one, and I wish that more New Yorkers had taken its lasting implications more seriously to heart. Instead, of course, the building boom in the floodplain that began under former-Mayor Bloomberg has only escalated under current-Mayor de Blasio, and I find little in our public discourse to suggest that people recognize the depth of our vulnerability.
The funny thing was, though, on our block, there were a few tree branches down – only one of any real size – and beyond that, no immediate sign that there had even been a storm. If it had rained much, it had happened after we fell asleep, and the storm surge had stopped blocks to the west of us. And yet, then, like now, in other parts of the City (and across the region), the situation was catastrophic: Dozens dead, homes destroyed, essential infrastructures waterlogged and permanently damaged, many people left without access to food and clean drinking water. (This is not the place to dig into the amazing efforts of Occupy Sandy – in which, to my shame, I played no part – but for readers interested in revisiting that episode in the City’s history, I strongly recommend the book Extreme Cities by CUNY professor Ashley Dawson.)
Coming back to the pandemic at hand, the callousness of arguments suggesting that our response here has been an overreaction (most of which tend to neglect the fact that through preparedness and prevention, we could’ve avoided this dire circumstance altogether) have continued to bother me. I’ve touched on them in theoretical and technical ways over the past two days, but today I’d like to speak to the human reality: What those arguments really assert – now that we’re into the phase of real heartbreak here in NYC – is that we should simply accept that the vulnerable are going to die from this disease, and that even making efforts to protect them defies the logic of cost-benefit analysis. This logic, of course, ignores the fact that our attenuated healthcare systems are guaranteed to be overwhelmed by the rush of very sick people generated by such a careless wait-and-see approach. What, then, should be the answer to that “surge” of sick people desperately in need of care? Shall we simply tell them that a political choice has been made that they are expendable? But that it’s essential (from a cost-benefit standpoint) to keep the hospitals otherwise up and running as usual, and thus that people who think that they may be COVID-19-positive and are in need of medical care ought simply to stay put and die at home?
We’re not good at dealing with death in this country, and yet, we are all, of course, mortal. There is a limit to what even the best healthcare systems and the most devoted healthcare providers can do for someone, but therein, again, lies the argument for prevention. For public health. We are a rich enough society that – even in our profoundly broken way – we do generally try to provide care for all. It might be expensive; it might be emergency care when it should’ve been, months earlier, routine; it might be invasive and grotesque when it should be palliative; but, in this country, I’d say it’s relatively rare that a very sick or injured person arrives at an emergency room and fails to receive treatment. In fact, I think this same observation extends to most of the world’s societies at this point (though, of course, privatization has done much shift the calculus of caregiving) – the fundamental difference simply being what care is available to whom where and when.
Here in New York, we are currently the type of society that stores rapidly accruing dead bodies in freezer trucks, but we are not, for now, the type that will voluntarily allow large numbers of people to die of acute causes in the streets without making an attempt to save them, or that will simply instruct people that it is their civic duty to die socially-distant deaths in their residences. (Deaths of despair; of chronic illness the root cause of which is someone else’s profit; of long, slow, profitable descents into addiction, all of these are the sorts of mass death with which we are, societally, much more comfortable. So, too, are we comfortable with the most shocking displays of misery in our streets – to which our national “homelessness crisis” clearly attests – though we are, at least, discomfited when that misery becomes a “quality of life issue”; but – if many of us are troubled but left feeling head-shakingly impotent in the face of the suffering engendered by our “way of life” – mass death out in the open remains a bridge too far.)
The title of this piece was lifted directly from our friend Anant’s Facebook post; he’s a cofounder of Hyderabad Urban Lab – an outfit that does quite visionary work on a shoestring budget, and has done what it could to urge a sane pandemic response in its eponymous city – and had just shared a piece from the Mumbai Mirror entitled: “Wily virus moves into slums, chawls where social distancing is physically impossible.”
Sadly, pretend time will soon be over in this country as well. As we did in New York, so to, it seems to me most parts of the United States have now done everything wrong. We’ll pay a heavy price for it as a country, but so too will the rest of the world, as viruses know no borders, and accounts multiply by the day of the vulnerable people in vulnerable places – like the residents of Bombay’s informal settlements – now being caught up in the pandemic’s onslaught: de facto incarcerated people in Gaza, displaced people in Burkina Faso, detained people in the archipelago of US immigration jails, people on Riker’s Island and in prisons and jails all around the country, poor people in Texas where the state’s attorney general recently moved to make abortion essentially illegal for the duration of this national crisis, and people in Queens – a borough of immigrants, one of the most diverse places on the planet, but also a place where many people live in grinding poverty and where, to the extent that they can get healthcare, it is from already resource-strapped and over-extended public hospitals (like Elmhurst) that are the first to be overwhelmed with need and the last to receive an outpouring of public (read: from people rich enough to give donations) support.
This is what rankles about these well-informed questions about our response to the pandemic: We did everything wrong, and not nearly enough until it was too late, and now we’re stuck in this horrible position. Should we, perhaps, have done nothing at all? Never. Should we fight to get through this and declare: Never again on our watch? That’s the question I pose to my generation. For better or worse, the world is increasingly ours. What will we do with our time on its stage?