COVID University

On one short walk recently, I heard at least four (and possibly as many as six) ambulances. Walking back past the freestanding emergency department on 7th Avenue yesterday, I saw a news crew set up beneath the Memorial in Rudin Management’s public-private AIDS Memorial Park with the tent-truck chimera in the background and masks on some, but not all, of their faces. While I was out, some scattered clapping and whooping broke out from the windows above, and for a second I felt bashful and confused: Were they cheering for me? Of course, they weren’t, these people in their kitchens and living rooms: This was for the healthcare workers, and it was, at once, moving and our own form of kitsch. To repurpose Koolhaas, New York feels quite delirious these days.

In Brazil, people have been banging pots and pans from indoors to protest against (and call for the resignation of) Jair Bolsonaro. In India, Prime Minister Modi (who welcomed Bolsonaro – only two short months ago, but in a very different world – as Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day observations) has cleverly moved to co-opt any such potential expression of popular outrage by encouraging mass pot-and-pan banging to honor the “heroes” of India’s bungled pandemic response, and here in New York State, our canny Governor has done much the same thing.

I think we’re all dealing with information overload these days. No doubt to the annoyance of actual epidemiologists, a lot of us feel like we’ve completed crash courses in epidemiology in recent weeks. COVID University is probably what Falwell’s Liberty should now be renamed, but I’m using it – in a nod to the Kanye of the noughts (and slightly after) – to acknowledge, in gentle self-effacement, the process by which we’ve all become such experts in the past month.

Image 4-1-20 at 11.24 AM.jpeg
Speaking of information overload, to the extent that you’re not interested in the math, please feel free to just look at the image and then continue reading! For those who are interested, I’ve updated this graph from yesterday and am sharing here some background on its creation; it shows the trend in daily deaths from COVID-19 in NYC from March 14th through March 31st (the two line graphs) versus the average daily death rate from the three leading causes of death in NYC (heart disease, cancer, and influenza + pneumonia) and average total number of daily deaths in the City (~130). Data on average daily deaths was extrapolated from the City’s vital statistics for 2017 (the last that are readily publicly available via Google search) which show 545.7 deaths per 100,000 for that year. In 2017, the City’s population was ~8.6 million (I use 8.623 million), and by multiplying 545.7 * 86.23 (the number of 100,000s that are in 8.623 million), we arrive at 47,056 as the total number of deaths in NYC in 2017. Dividing by 365 yields 129 death/day. Figures for three leading causes of death were drawn from this City data for 2012-2014. In 2013, NYC’s population was ~8.5 million (I use 8.459 million), so by taking average deaths per year and multiplying by 8.623/8.459, we can get a rough estimate (which assumes, rightly or wrongly, that these death rates remain constant from year to year) of deaths per year form these causes in 2017. NYC population has come down slightly since 2017, so, if anything, I’d guess that these values represent slight overestimations for the City in 2020. All of this would be easier if City data were more easily accessible, but to the City’s credit, it has finally launched a COVID-19 data portal, which fact is reflected in the presence of the green line graph above. 

I’ve been skimming over the latest publications on LitCovid each morning; it’s fascinating to see the immense profusion of knowledge being generated about this disease, its spread, and the ramifications thereof, but also hard to keep up with. It seems that COVID-related knowledge production, too, will follow an exponential curve (for first sharing this meme with me, I have to give credit to our friend Aashna). Paywalled at the link from LitCovid is an article entitled Alcohol consumption in the Covid-19 Era – of course, I was curious! That Magnolia Bakery remains, still, open strikes me as an outrage against both decency and sense, but that the wine and liquor stores still have their neon signs lit up, a matter of necessity. Of course liquor stores are essential! I think there would be few more expeditious ways to spur insurrection than closing them. The people must have their pots and pans to harmlessly bang away at and their numbing booze to drink.

Speaking of rising up, DiEM25 has a good and funny conversation up between Slavoj Žižek and Renata Ávila in which Žižek opines that the people most terrified by the pandemic are actually those in power. I guess this is what I have in mind in hoping that the global mass protest movements of 2019 will reemerge with ferocity once the pandemic is quelled. The video of Brooklynites singing Biggie out their windows on lockdown may have been fake (and actually filmed on the Upper West Side), but the caged energy and longing it speaks to are very real, and the anger and confusion in our society today, both growing and tangible.

As a friend put it: “It’s scary to see how few resources are at our disposal when this house of cards start falling. Wild that the healthcare and economic vitality of this city have come down to a day-by-day scenario.”

Truer words never texted. Even more real are the efforts of workers at Amazon, Whole Foods (obviously now owned by Amazon), Instacart, UPS, and many other major US corporations to have their health and safety respected as they undertake often low-wage but now-clearly-essential labor. Chief among the workers we should be standing with are, of course, healthcare workers, and I think it is lost on no one, at this point, what a national scandal it is how helplessly and hopelessly under-resourced and under-prepared our healthcare institutions are, and the price our healthcare workers are now paying as a result of how “lean” (and hence profitable) these institutions have been made in recent decades in preparation for their current implosion.

As Žižek points out at the very beginning of the above-linked conversation – and as most thoughtful commentators of the now-homebound-class reflexively point out when the subject of sheltering-in-place arises – it is, of course, a privilege to be able to stay in. Prisoners on Riker’s Island are being offered six dollars an hour and PPE in exchange for digging mass graves on Hart Island (an interesting, sad place to visit under different circumstances than these); rural and tribal communities are fighting the ongoing construction of the KXL pipeline in this country; the Wet’suwet’en are fighting the ongoing construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in Canada; the IDF haven’t stopped raiding Palestinian communities (although, like ICE in the US, are now going about their brutal work with PPE/wearing hazmat suits); and as the Indian Government continues to use the pandemic response to further its authoritarian and communalist (read: anti-Muslim) agenda, “[f]ear grips” residents of Bombay’s informal settlements where “safety measures to prevent coronavirus infections are an unachievable privilege”; meanwhile in this country, Mehdi Hasan warns against the possibility that the President may try to use the current state of generalized confusion and distress to launch a war with Iran and, following his chief medical advisor on all matters coronavirus, that same schizoid President warned yesterday about hard days and large death tolls ahead, causing the public markets to once again tank. A 1,000-point drop in the Dow now feels like nothing, though somebodies out there must be benefitting from these wild fluctuations.

In the US, our pandemic response looks increasingly militarized – in no small part because the US military is one of the very few public institutions in this country that hasn’t been starved of resources by decades of neoliberal austerity – but as we look around the world, we can see clear examples of alternatives. I will keep repeating: It need not have been this way, and it need not be this way ever again.

One of my bright spots from yesterday almost immediately went dark as, according to The Intercept: “In near record time, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily halted a lower court order that would have protected access to abortion in Texas amid the Covid-19 crisis.”

As New York was just starting to descend into this madness, a friend asked me over the phone, “Will this be the thing that finally spells an end to our civil liberties?”

I said, no, but clearly there are those – including many of those in power – who would like to see things turn out otherwise.

On the one hand, there’s so much we don’t know about this disease and this virus; it would be nice if we could simply coordinate all our efforts and energies towards care, education, and necessary action to address the suffering and stop the pandemic. On the other hand, forces of reaction are daily on the march, and we have no time to spare and are fighting with one hand tied behind our back (our both of our hands tethered to our computers as we sit locked indoors). Not everyone is inside though, and part of how we at once address the pandemic and head off the political crisis of more-than-looming and increasingly muscular global fascist/authoritarian movements is by standing with those people who remain at work, in the streets, keeping New York City’s lights on and its trash collected, its people (myself included) fed, and its sick (in increasingly staggering numbers) cared for. This is the organizing that we can do now that checks all three of my boxes: 1) reducing the harm done by the pandemic; 2) meeting people’s needs in the present; and 3) planning and strategizing for a better future.

Our friends at Green Top Farms are among the many great folks out there working to check all these boxes at once; they’re now accepting charitable donations (through an affiliated 501(c)(3) that was set up to support getting healthy food into NYC schools) and the proceeds go to feeding some of the City’s healthcare workers. This model is an elegant one as it at once allows Green Top to keep their amazing team employed through this crisis, while also ensuring the people at the heart of our pandemic response are getting fed delicious, nutritious food (from the one and only Chef Anup Joshi), and at the same time, sustaining Green Top’s good work as part of the Real Food Movement, which looks to reimagine and rework the broken, industrial food/agriculture system that – as Josh, one of Green Top’s founders often puts it – “is killing the planet.”

I encourage you to donate to Green Top today to support their great work as a small part of this immense city-wide, national, and global effort. It’s also Census Day, so – if its relevant for you – no harm in completing the Census as well while you’re at it. Do one, the other, or both, and I hope your spirits are lifted and resolve strengthened for the long fights ahead.

6 thoughts on “COVID University

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