The Buck Stops Where?

According to CNN, “22 New York City subway employees have died of complications due to coronavirus.” Less than a month ago, the MTA was still prohibiting transit workers from wearing masks. The Post reports that the “NYC DOE [has been] tight-lipped about coronavirus cases among educators,” but we know for certain that at least one principal and one teacher have died from the virus. Remember when Mayor de Blasio was valiantly keeping the schools open just three weeks ago? Reliable personal accounts suggest that at least 10 nannies have already died from COVID-19 in NYC. Were these women – like employees of New York City Transit and the Department of Education – working well beyond when they should’ve been without protection? One wonders how their former employers are now feeling.

There’s a lot we still don’t know about COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes it), but certainly, we knew enough soon enough to avert the above catalogued tragedies, and real leaders would already be coming forward to apologize for all the harm their bad decisions caused.

Skimming LitCovid today, this fragment – in particular, its neologism – caught my eye: “filtering out fact from fiction in the infodemic.” The infodemic. That’s nice. The abstract for the article – from the title of which the fragment is drawn – reads as follows:

As the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus 2 (SARS‐CoV‐2) continues to spread across the world, and the associated lung disease COVID‐19 remains difficult to treat, information from media and private communication flows at high speed, often through unfiltered channels. Much of this information is speculative, as it derives from preliminary and inconclusive studies, and creates confusion as well as anxiety. This phenomenon was recently labelled as “infodemic” by the World Health Organization.

Truer words never written, and it’s fascinating to see the variety of approaches being used in attempts to fill the gaps in our knowledge: Mass serological testing (for antibodies against COVID-19) will, of course, be essential, but researchers are also looking to sample sewage as a way of gauging presence and prevalence of the disease in a population, and according to at least one article, social media search indexes (SMSI) “could be a significant predictor of the number of COVID-19 infections” and “an effective early predictor, which would enable governments’ health departments to locate potential and high-risk outbreak areas.” Truly amazing of what we are collectively capable.

On the flip-side, the British Government has had to pressure social media platforms “after mobile phone masts in Birmingham, Merseyside and Belfast were set on fire amid a widely shared conspiracy theory linking 5G networks to the coronavirus pandemic.” According to Bill McKibben – who’s been writing furiously on this issue which I’ve also pointed to in recent weeks – “Big Oil is using the coronavirus pandemic to push through the Keystone XL pipeline“; as McKibben questions, “How could anyone be this low?” The answer as to who could be? Chase Bank and Alberta’s provincial government. Meanwhile, as this monumental crime unfolds and “70% of COVID-19 Deaths Are Black” in Chicago, in a Jungle Prince of Delhi-style gesture of exoticist (read: racist) neocolonialism, the New York Times found time to do a major feature on a South African couple who thought it wise to start their honeymoon in the Maldives on March 22nd. As the Times subtitles: “They were surrounded by a fleet of staff, who were stranded themselves, trapped in an eternal honeymoon in the Maldives. Their adventure continues.” One can only assume that “their” here does not refer to the “resort’s full staff” who are, according to the article “at hand, because of the presence of the two guests.”

To quote at more length than the piece deserves:

Government regulations won’t allow any Maldivians to leave resorts until after they undergo a quarantine that follows their last guests’ departure. Accustomed to the flow of a bustling workday, and the engagement with a full house of guests, most of the staff, having grown listless and lonely, dote on the couple ceaselessly. Their “room boy” checks on them five times a day. The dining crew made them an elaborate candlelit dinner on the beach. Every night performers still put on a show for them in the resort’s restaurant: Two lone audience members in a grand dining hall.

At breakfast, nine waiters loiter by their table. Hostesses, bussers and assorted chefs circulate conspicuously, like commoners near a celebrity. The couple has a designated server, but others still come by to chat during meals, topping off water glasses after each sip, offering drinks even though brimming cocktail glasses stand in full view, perspiring. The diving instructor pleads with them to go snorkeling whenever they pass him by.

I’d ask what heartless monster produced this dehumanizing drivel, but the piece has a byline, so no need. Truly amazing of what we are collectively capable.

Back in the world of people with hearts and minds working in tandem, as we confront persistent uncertainty about how long the isolation period should be, what fraction of cases are asymptomatic, and even what the infection fatality rate is, it’s understandable that Nate Silver (in an article shared with me by our friend Neha, who always sends me interesting data-driven content and is, coincidentally or not, married to a data analyst), would conclude that “Coronavirus Case Counts Are Meaningless,” although with an asterisk. I’ve written and posted about this elsewhere, but to the point, present-tense instances from New York and from India are instructive. In New York, the Governor has intimated that we may be reaching “the peak” – emphasis on “may – and yet major news outlets, including the aforementioned Times and Crain’s are reporting optimistically on this potential good news. The Crain’s piece itself quotes the Governor:

We could either be very near the apex, or the apex could be a plateau and we could be on the plateau right now. […] You can’t do this day to day. You have to look at three or four days to see a pattern.

Such uncertainty and (justifiable) equivocation from the Governor has justified a raft of encouraging headlines, while, at the same time, the Times and others are muddying the water about the mortality data from New York City in a way that, as I wrote on Instagram, “reflect[s] either incompetence, or […] a lie.”

In India, researchers are now pursuing the hope that BCG vaccination (which is universal in India) may slow the spread of the disease. I’m with them in their hope, tendentious as it seems. In a country that is testing at one of the lowest rates in the world, where the Prime Minister is gaslighting the entire population into performing astrological rituals to counter the pandemic (in the process, threatening India’s electricity grid with the “prospect of a potential grid failure due to a human decision”), and “the fight against coronavirus looks and sounds like a Diwali celebration” as The Wire put it, “we know that perhaps we have nothing left but hope.”

Back in the United States, The Intercept reports that, “As Coronavirus Looms in Federal Detention, People Inside Are Being Denied [their] Constitutional Right to Speak with Lawyers”; that the “Untested Covid-19 Treatment” being promoted by the President “Can Have [a] Fatal Side Effect, Cardiologists Warn”; and that “Coronavirus Is Exposing How Foreign Crusades Bled America’s Domestic Resources Dry”; on this last point, all of this was foretold years and decades ago, but here we are now, living it.

Thank goodness for the likes of Arundhati Roy, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Vijay Prashad and Yanis Varoufakis who have released a joint statement in “Solidarity with shack dwellers in South Africa”; imagine if the New York Times gave enough of a shit to direct their (remarkably powerful) attention thusly instead of towards the clueless vacationers holding a whole resort of ill-paid Maldivians hostage. Roy has an excellent, long piece in The Caravan on “Fiction in the time of fake news,” and I’ve linked to work of the other four in recent weeks. Would that more of the elite/corporate media-following world took their lead, instead, from these thinkers and their compatriots.

To point to a few more bright spots, Laurie Garrett has been out ahead of this pandemic since day one, and I found this interview with her worth listening to in spite of the sometimes self-indulgent host. This webinar with the brilliant Sonia Shah (and a full slate of thoughtful panelists) was amazing; Shah cut more to the heart of COVID-19 matters in 10 or 15 minutes than I’ve heard anyone else do in an hour, and her emphasis on the fact that a stay-at-home/lockdown approach will simply not be effective in many contexts (eg, places where people have no option either to safely stay at home without starving or to socially-distance where they reside) stayed with me, as did Garrett’s exasperated insistence that improved pandemic response is a function, not of of medical systems, or even of universal healthcare, but of a serious commitment to and investment in public health. I’ve been writing a lot about the latter point lately – especially in reflecting back on New York City’s own long, proud, seemingly-now-forgotten history of public health leadership – and I plan to write more on this very topic tomorrow.

Finally, our friend Krystal – the founder of Grouphug Tech and a recent Shark Tank winner – has put together this fundraiser to buy N95 masks (“[t]hrough [her] manufacturing partners in China” where her beautiful window solar chargers are made) for healthcare workers in NYC. I just donated and encourage you to do the same if you’re able to.

And last, but definitely not least, I’m copying this directly from the website of Jeremy Scahill’s podcast, Intercepted:

If you or someone you know needs emotional support or is contemplating suicide, resources include the Crisis Text Line, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Trevor Project, or the International Association for Suicide Prevention.

Stay healthy, stay sane, and stay engaged. In solidarity and love – especially for my fellow New Yorkers – for another tough week ahead.



3 thoughts on “The Buck Stops Where?

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