The Political Uses of Pandemic

You start to forget how much it wears on you – the stress, the isolation, the pain of the collective trauma. The pain of your friends and loved ones. The pain you feel yourself.

Our friend’s best friend’s father died of COVID-19 last week in New Jersey. Death stalks closer.

Last night, I stepped out to take out our recycling (for the people of DSNY continue to do the essential work they do) and, finding our block totally empty, I stopped for a moment to breathe. It wasn’t one of the fake “Deep Breath Moments” with which our Governor has been ending his daily “NYS Coronavirus Update” emails – our Governor, who, after bungling through the early days of this crisis, has proven remarkably energetic in recent weeks, so much so that it’s necessary to remind ourselves, as Akash Mehta has in the pages of Jacobin, that Even in a Pandemic, Andrew Cuomo Is Not Your Friend – but an actual deep breath. The light above our neighbor’s door shone on a magnolia tree. I felt like crying.

I love the spring – the embarrassment of riches it brings in a Manhattan that overflows with decorative flowering plants – and even knowledge that all this has been landscaped and manufactured, as it were, even the constant presence of our island’s grisly history, doesn’t significantly detract from the pleasure I take in spring flowers. This year, it seems we’ll mostly be missing spring in New York though. In Central Park, Mount Sinai is constructing a field hospital, and even the short walk I indulge in daily in our neighborhood is generally overshadowed by the signs of the pandemic’s toll: Sirens in the distance, an ambulance barreling by. We live close by to what used to be Saint Vincent’s – site of my father’s birth, in fact – and were it still a hospital, and not the luxury condominiums into which it has been converted, one imagines it would be among the many epicenters of the City’s crisis today as it was the epicenter of the City’s AIDS crisis nearly four decades ago.

Instead, the freestanding Northwell Health / Lenox Hill Emergency Department – in an iconic brutalist building, (almost) all that remains of the legendary hospital – plays host to a steady stream of ambulances. Lost in thought over the weekend, and preoccupied with the strange ritual of social distancing (that reminds me of childhood games of tag), I was surprised to look up from outside the Equinox – which, we should remember, closed the doors of all its NYC clubs barely more than a week ago – and discover a strange chimera of a structure: What looked like a catering tent jacked up on an incline to meet the head of a tractor trailer that – at least in New York – reads visually as a temporary boiler unit. There was a siren in the distance; five ambulances idled in the foreground; and for a moment, I thought I was seeing one of the freezer trucks I’d been reading and hearing about. Not a temp boiler, but a temp morgue. But when I reached home, my partner clarified for me, and showed me a pic from our friend Zahra, a doctor, who, in the accompanying text, had reported feeling exhausted, used a very sad emoji, but also explained that she’d been “in the tent” all day. If I watched more television, maybe I’d have been aware that these are among the sites were screening is happening, and just as New York State is now only testing patients for whom positive diagnosis would change the course of treatment, so too, many sick – but not-sick-enough – patients, are being triaged out of these strange tent-trucks and being sent straight back home.

The number of COVID-19 deaths in NYC continues to rise sharply, though not as sharply as the early trend might’ve suggested: From doubling every two days, now the cumulative number of deaths seems to be doubling more like every three – so perhaps this is a hopeful sign regarding the effectiveness of some of the early preventive actions that were taken at large: closure of major venues, a smattering of WFH policies, vulnerable populations voluntarily self-isolating out of concern for their own well-being – though, of course, the doubling is happening on an ever higher base, so the raw number of deaths per day continues to trend, if jaggedly, upward.

Not to get too technical on a morbid subject, but given a five-day average incubation period and conservatively, a 14-day average period of illness between onset of symptoms and death, at the most optimistic, we could hope to see the impact of the “Stay-at-Home” order kick in around the start of the second week of April. Unfortunately, given that most transmission is apparently amongst family and friends, and that a large number of people are likely to have contracted the disease after the promulgation of the order from their intimates, it seems likely that there will be a further period of plateau at or around the level of peak mortality that could easily last a few additional weeks; again, in my view, this is an optimistic scenario (in which our weakly-enforced and unevenly-respected preventive measures prove effective enough to break the disease’s spread), and if the daily number of deaths has started to decline significantly by the end of April, I’ll count us lucky.

I’m working under an assumption that the end of May is the soonest we can expect a true return of anything approximating “normalcy” (always a problematic concept as for many people, “Normal [Is] the Problem“), and even then, with significant lasting adjustments and accommodations being made by all around what that means. I don’t expect private schools to resume in-person classes this academic year, though suspect the public schools may attempt a symbolic reopening in June, if circumstances permit, to gesture towards a planned return to that same normalcy in the fall, and if my partner and I can sit down across the bar from our friend Akil by June, I’ll be – as our friend Thiru might put it – “damn happy.”

For context, Wuhan – a city of comparable size to New York’s five boroughs – was shut down almost completely (and subject to a much more stringent set of measures than we have been to date) for seven weeks. It took 10 weeks (so basically up to the present) before shops and malls began to partially re-open. People are now being allowed to return to Wuhan, but, apparently, until April 7th, still no one is allowed to leave.

We can imagine that our measures will prove less effective than theirs, and that the disruptions of our lives – if less severe – will therefore, by necessity, prove longer lasting. Unlike the Wuhanese, we here in New York will also likely face the misfortune – if we do start to emerge, in May, from the worst of our own local/regional crisis – of a pandemic raging across the country to which we are, if grudgingly, attached.

Seven weeks from March 19th (the date of the promulgation of the “Stay-at-Home” order) would be May 7th. Expecting the most stringent of our not-very-stringent measures to be lifted before then is reasonably likely to create false hope and lead to disappointment. Conversely, expecting that the insufficient stringency of our measures combined with the unfolding national disaster that will almost certainly still be raging in six weeks will probably necessitate ongoing semi-stringent measures in New York at least through the end of May feels equal parts realistic and sad to me.

On the upside (and downside), it could all still easily prove much worse than that. I’d be (and I am) hoping and working for the best possible outcome here, but also hunkered down and prepared for less than that. Again, in Wuhan it was seven weeks of complete lockdown, 10 weeks before significant partial reopening of commercial spaces, and is slated to be 11 weeks before all travel restrictions are lifted. Meanwhile, we’ve had a lax shutdown here (economically devastating, to be certain, but not necessarily terribly effective at stopping the spread of the virus) and people continue to travel freely in ways that are often galling and remarkably irresponsible.

Lest I seem to be calling for autocratic measures – like the brutal, ineffective, and deadly ones that have been rolled out in India in the past week – I’m not. As has been my steady refrain, on the one hand, I’d love to see an informed and public-minded citizenry stop acting like sociopathic idiots, and on the other, I believe that we need a historic recommitment to the basic tenets and practices of public health. There never should’ve been a need for a shutdown, because there never should’ve been a pandemic in the first place.

But there was and is a pandemic, and, as Mike Davis put it, “If we don’t debate a democratic response to pandemics now, we risk ceding leadership to tyrants.” With the caveat that a lot of “Western” ink has been spilled in attacking the Chinese, and yet it remains the case that – as the Europeans recriminate and turn their backs on each other, and the United States turns its back on the entire world as we drift deeper into the throes of this artfully-orchestrated nightmare – China and Cuba are among the few nations engaged in delivering meaningful transnational aid in the face of the pandemic – with that caveat, I think Davis is right.

Postscript: On the subject of democracy, DiEM25 (short for The Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) has some great interviews up. They’re being broadcast as livestreams, but the videos are all available on YouTube; I watched/listened to those with Vijay Prashad and Noam Chomsky this afternoon and can happily recommend both – oh, and added bonus if you watch the Chomsky interview: It ends with cameos from not only his dog, but also his parrot, which apparently knows how to say, “All sovereignty to the people!” in Portuguese.

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