Against Authoritarians, Not Authorities

My grandfather survived, as a young child, the influenza pandemic of 1918 through 1920, and died, at the age of 95 from seasonal flu that escalated into pneumonia. At the time of his death, more than ten years ago, he was still living alone, still walking a few miles most days, still climbing the steep stairs to and from his second-floor bedroom in the house in Westchester County where – after spending the first half of his life in the City of his birth – he’d moved when my father and my uncle were young, part of the post-World War II wave of White Flight and suburbanization that had such dire racial, social, and ecological consequences for our country.

I loved my grandfather to death – it took years before I stopped reaching for my phone to call him – and in the midst of this pandemic which poses such a disproportionate risk to elders, I find myself thinking of him often. No one lives forever, but he was well and sound of mind to the end, and there was no reason he should’ve died from something so preventable, just as there is no reason – other than negligence and incompetence – that so many people today face mortal threat from COVID-19. This crisis was preventable, and it remains imminently end-able.

In the spirit of learning from our history though, and to explain my title, and because today, I’m trying to largely take an evening of rest with my partner, I’m going to lean heavily on the incomparable work of Mike Wallace and the late Edwin G. Burrows, legendary historians of New York City. As their work shows, sadly, we’ve been here before, and, in all likelihood, we’ll be here again. We don’t have to be back in this position any time soon though, but to avoid, in our lifetimes, a repeat of this colossal tragedy, we’ll have to learn the hard lessons now being taught us by this virus, and take concerted and lasting action to spare ourselves and those who come after us the unnecessary suffering we now endure. The excerpts which follow will mostly speak for themselves, though I’ll add in a few comments (below the excerpts to which they relate), and all images below are drawn from Burrows and Wallace’s magisterial and compendious history of New York, Gotham (specifically, from pages 356-359 and 589-594 of the paperback edition). They are the type of authorities – like the health authorities whose advice too many of our elected officials wantonly ignore – to whom I think we should all be looking to better understand the world which we share.

The Politicization of Contagion

Obviously, the contours of our politics have shifted radically in the more than two centuries of our country’s history, but not that radically, and disease – fundamentally biological – continues to be mobilized for often vicious political ends.

Flight from Pestilence

In this account of events from the early days of our settler-colonial Republic, we should recognize the same pattern that has led to Instagram influencers “retreating” to the Hamptons and COVID-19 cases spreading rapidly in the vicinity of Idaho’s exclusive resort town, Sun Valley.

The Creation of a Board of Health (that is, a public health authority)

Infectious diseases scare people, and after outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics of such diseases, political will often surfaces to take meaningful action to curb their future spread.

The Power of Public Health

And even when people don’t especially understand what they’re doing (eg, in the above instance, where they lacked the Germ Theory of Disease), collective and public actions can make a significant impact in improving health outcomes for all. There are many things we don’t understand about COVID-19 today, but we are fortunate – relative to New Yorkers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries – to have the benefit of more than 200 additional years of advancement in science and technology, and we certainly understand enough – political will and collective commitment permitting – to stop the spread of this disease in its tracks.

The Lapsing of Vigilance

Unfortunately, people also have short memories, and by 1832, New York City once again found itself vulnerable to epidemic contagion, this time in the form of cholera (which is not caused by lack of Christian piety or religious fervor, but the spread of which – as the genocidal Saudi-Emirati war on Yemen, which our government continues to back, shows – can certainly be fueled by violence and social and infrastructural breakdown).

Profits and Paternalism

Then, as now, the poor paid the highest price. (Today, in the United States, people of color, and especially Black people, are at greater risk from COVID-19 owing to a confluence of underlying structural factors all rooted in white supremacy.)

The Invisibility of the Poor

Then, as now, as well, the sudden visibility of the poor (say, today, in the form of suddenly “essential” workers of all sorts) did little to reduce the disproportionate burden for their care that fell on under-resourced public institutions (like Elmhurst Hospital).

Deathly Silence

Just as despicable people – like the President’s son-in-law – always look to profit off / in the midst of calamity, so too, people with hate in their hearts always look to scapegoat the most marginal for failings that are fundamentally social and political in character. Such failings, of course, can lead to the temporary paralyzation of entire cities.

The Wrath not of God, but of Injustice

But as has been the case since well before the time of Jesus Christ – whose purported resurrection our self-worshipping President was so eager to see people die to celebrate – courageous individuals (such as the above quoted George Henry Evans), generally of the working class, have never failed to speak truth in the face of injustice. To repeat Evans prescient words: “[T]he cholera so far from being a scourge of the Almighty is a scourge which [hu]mankind have brought down upon themselves by their own bad arrangements which produce poverty among many, while abundance is in existence for all.”

This is the meaning of the “private sufficiency, public luxury” for which George Monbiot regularly calls, and this equation is as much the solution to the crisis of this pandemic as it is to the global crisis of our climate that threatens to consume us all.


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