Hard to believe that it was only a month ago that I wrote this post, my first focused exclusively on what then was obviously already a pandemic, but had not yet officially been declared one by the WHO. (I first addressed COVID-19 in a substantial way in this post from February 27th in which I wrote: “As COVID-19 spreads, I have an eerie feeling of watching, in fast forward, the global response to the climate crisis to date.”)
But on March 7th, I wrote the following: “According to the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering, there are more than 400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US […] and […] in New York State, Governor Cuomo has declared a state of emergency today as the total number of identified cases of COVID-19 (hereafter: the disease) in New York has roughly doubled for each of the past three consecutive days.
And: “Am I afraid of the disease personally? Not particularly, but I certainly don’t want to get sick. Do I fear its potential consequences? I’m terrified. And you should be too.”
And: “As with climate crisis, so with pandemic: We’ve waited until it’s too late to do anything at all, and now that the crisis is upon us – and as the rich and the kleptocrats, for the most part, shelter themselves and ask how, from this, they can profit – we’re panicking and scrambling to salvage from the worst-case scenario, something less bad. It’s a worthy goal, and (on the climate side), what I see as my life’s work. But relative to the virus, we should at least be realistic. If we were serious about containing it, we would have confronted capitalism month’s ago, at least in a limited way. Air travel, cruise ships, and tourism more generally have all been major, often intersecting, vectors for the global spread of the disease. Why did we continue flying, cruising, and touring as the virus rapidly circumnavigated the globe?”
And: “Here in New York, most of us continue to go about our daily lives. Is there something brave about this? Or something idiotic, or at least foolhardy? I think we need to confront the fact that we’ve already made a choice: That although this disease is quite different than the seasonal flu […] we will treat it in much the same fashion.”
Hard to believe: One month ago, the national confirmed case count was 400. Now, it’s 400,000. Fuck. What have we done? And what haven’t we? As Nate Silver argues, and I’ve addressed elsewhere (including yesterday), these case count numbers are largely meaningless, so variable, inconsistent, and insufficient have been our testing paradigms. Still, the 1000x increase in the last 31 days does paint a vivid picture of our distress. That amounts to a doubling of confirmed cases roughly every three days, though who knows what the rate has been of the actual spread of infection. Quite high. Very high. Astronomical. All of those seem roughly in the ballpark. Until we have mass serological testing or some other clever indicator of the extent of total past infection in the population, only rates of hospitalization, ICU admission, and death give us any objective sense of the scale of the crisis, which is, again, large. Very large. An extremely big crisis of historic magnitude.
But sadly, even those numbers – especially those around deaths – have been politicized. Here in New York City, mortality figures reported by the State and by the City vary widely, and media outlets have been highly selective – to the point of dishonesty – in their treatment of these numbers. Certainly, major media outlets must be aware that while the State appears to be announcing raw data on deaths (by county) on a daily basis (likely based on presumed diagnosis in the case where someone dies of pneumonia in the absence of a positive COVID-19 test), the City has been updating its data gradually (I suspect based on posthumous confirmed positive tests, but perhaps owing also to reporting delays from individual hospitals), such that, right now, the City shows a total death count in NYC of 2,738 (as of 4/06/2020 at 5 PM) while the State shows a total death count – again, in NYC – of 4,111 (as of 4/06/2020). That’s a difference of more than 50%.
Of course, the reportage in recent days from the Times and other major media outlets has been confusing and contradictory. On the one hand, the above headline, on the other, from Crain’s, “Cuomo extends stay home rules amid glimmer of hope,” followed the very next day by, “Coronavirus deaths in the state jump by 132 after two-day plateau“. What about the glimmer, though? I guess it flickered out. This is the problem with lying about objective facts in hope of manipulating public sentiment.
I quote Angeles Solis, an organizer with Make the Road’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund who was interviewed this morning on Democracy Now!:
While New York Governor Cuomo enjoys his moment of fame on a national scale, his actions behind the scenes have harmed thousands of New Yorkers. He passed an austerity budget that fails the working poor and favors the rich. Now, just on the topic of Amazon, while the governor of Kentucky immediately intervened when positive cases of COVID popped up in Amazon warehouses, our governor has yet to respond to the strikers calling on him to ensure their safety and the safety of the public. And in fact, this was the man who wanted to rename himself Amazon Cuomo. And we need the governor of New York to enact real protections for all undocumented immigrants, for all workers in our state. Leadership in front of a camera is one thing, but behind the scenes the budget has hurt our communities. It has taken resources from our schools. It has made cuts to Medicaid. And it has failed to tax the rich and billionaires in our state that have the ability to provide the resources and do their part to slowing the spread of this crisis.
It’s important that we not believe lies, and it’s important that the media not dutifully repeat them.
Why am I calling this a lie though? (Incidentally, it’s 7 PM and I hear the banging and hollering outside. I hope it moves the hearts of those for whom it’s meant.)
But why lie to us? Or couldn’t it be a simple misunderstanding? A mistake?
Could it simply be that the most well-resourced newsroom in the world missed obvious facts that were obvious to me, even from the confines of my own apartment? Just as it was remarkable, really only a few weeks ago, when we witnessed the whole Democratic Party establishment and “liberal” corporate media pivot in brutal unity to assert that Bernie Sanders would not be the Democratic nominee for president and that Joe Biden would (and hard to believe how little time has elapsed since all that transpired, as well, and that, as the unfortunate voters of Wisconsin can attest, there is still an epochally consequential presidential race afoot), so, too, the lining up behind the Governor’s agenda of the corporate media has been striking.
It seems clear to me that people at the Times knew perfectly well that the numbers they were (and still are) publishing are unrepresentative of the facts to the point of being dishonest. They’ll shield themselves by saying they simply consulted the City’s portal, but why didn’t they also consult the State’s? Are they incapable of addition? Or only of scrutinizing the agendas of powerful politicians – and of one politician in particular (the one who has the population dutifully hootin’ and hollering’ out their windows as they bang on pots and pans)?
We live in a democracy, if an increasingly fragile one, and part of defending our democracy is demanding that we are told the truth by our elected officials (a demand not often met, even in the best of times); holding these officials accountable when they lie; and creating institutions and structures (such as open data architectures and freedom of information laws) that make it possible for the public to access accurate and timely information about the state of our society and polity.
In that same piece on March 7th, I predicted: “We will take basic precautions – including handwashing, covering our sneezes, and perhaps even temporarily avoiding social practices like hugging and shaking hands – but we will otherwise continue to go about our daily lives. We certainly won’t subject ourselves (or be subjected by our elected officials) to anything like the draconian city-wide quarantines which were mandated across much of Hubei Privince by the (authoritarian) Chinese Communist Party. As a byproduct, many people will die […]”
I was, of course, both right and wrong in this, as we’ve obviously been under a “Stay-at-Home” order now for more than two weeks, but – based on the short walk I took earlier – we’re still not taking it very seriously, and we never have.
As I’ve written elsewhere – in looking to the work of Mike Davis, among others – in the global struggle against fascism, we need robust public debate about our pandemic preparedness (or lack thereof) and our pandemic response (including its troubling and authoritarian aspects). The President and his cronies are moving to take every advantage they can of this crisis. The CEO of Chase Bank (where I still, in spite of my best intentions, have accounts) is trying to position Chase – from a PR standpoint – as a leader in humane response to this crisis (I quote: “JPMorgan Chase has built its reputation on being there for clients, customers and communities in the most critical times.”) as Chase simultaneously moves to back the Keystone XL pipeline project currently being thrust recklessly and in the worst tradition of disaster capitalism down the throats and through the communities of indigenous and other rural folks, because it – the pipeline, that is; not the integrity of these communities – is “essential”.
These are lies, but not plain and simple. They are complex lies, lies that masquerade as a form of (ideological) truth. That the strength, pride, health, well-being, and very identify of “everyday Americans” is somehow caught up with the wealth, power, greed, and brutality of this country’s largest corporations and of the State itself, in all its disfiguring violence.
Mehdi Hasan is right in advising: “After Coronavirus, Let’s Never Forget: Republicans Recklessly Put Our Lives in Danger.” And I took heart in the (long) Twitter thread from Andy Slavitt to which my partner directed my attention this morning. There will be an after to this crisis, and our efforts, even in this country, are working to slow the spread and lessen the severity of what is already quite devastating, but could still easily be much more so. There will be an after, but not quite as soon as the New York Times, Governor Cuomo, and others have been promising us.
For a democracy to function, we need an informed, engaged populous. What this crisis has shown is that – after 40+ years of neoliberalism and the gutting of our public institutions and our public spirit, alike – we are floundering somewhere out in the no-person’s deep between authoritarianism and democracy. It’s a familiar place in this country, as in this City, but we should be demanding better.
To quote Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also from today’s episode of Democracy Now!:
In New York City alone, we are seeing 200 to 300 people dying in their homes a day — per day in New York City, inside their homes, in addition to the hospitalizations. These numbers that you’re seeing, all in all, many of them are confirmed coronavirus cases. As you mentioned, many people do not have access to tests, so a lot of these deaths that you are seeing, there are many more that are uncounted, that are being counted as pneumonia or being counted as other causes of death, because those people were not able to get a COVID-19 test.
We need more transparent data, not less. We need more public engagement, not less. We don’t need a population chided and brow-beaten into following rules they don’t understand (and so largely ignore). We need a population that is informed, gives a shit, and is backed up by functioning public institutions – including those of public health – in taking necessary action in the face of daunting circumstances. In short, we need more democracy, not less, and we certainly don’t need facile and numbing lies.
Death to fascism. One truth at a time.