The United States has long been known for its exemplary superlatives. From the blonde movie star who crashes through Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, to Irish exasperation at “American use of the word ‘winningest’,” to crowds chanting “U.S.A!” at football games, political rallies, or – in the form of heavily-armed mercenaries – in the streets of a destroyed Baghdad, the US is seen and sees itself as exceptional. (Basically, the US is extra.) So – ignominious as the title may be – perhaps it should come as no surprise that this country, my country, has been crowned “the world leader” in COVID-19 caseload. We already lead the rich countries of the world in maternal mortality, mass shootings, and percentage of population uninsured, so it seems fitting enough we should lead in mass death from pandemic as well.
New York City, too, has its exceptionalism. According to the banners mounted – often half in tatters – on lampposts throughout the Financial District, New York is the global capital of just about everything: Real estate, finance, fashion. They stop short of technology – the banners – but I’m sure there’s one for insurance, and yet, even the skeptics among New Yorkers – myself included – mostly, at heart, love the City’s bombast, if not its booster class.
Anyway, save for the Bronx, New York is also a city of islands, but although we may imagine – and sometimes wish – ourselves apart from the country to which the City is both marginal and central, eccentric and essential, our city of islands, archipelagic metropolis, is no more an island unto itself relative to the greater United States than it is to the world beyond that exceptional country’s borders.
On the subject of interconnection, Rob Wallace and coauthors have a dense, sledge hammer of a piece in the May Monthly Review entitled “COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital,” the subtitle of which – “New York to China and Back” – hints at just the sort of un-isolation to which I’m speaking. The whole piece is worth reading, and I encourage you to set aside half an hour for it, but in the meantime, I will quote a few teaser passages here, starting with the following:
Capitalism commodifies everything—Mars exploration here, sleep there, lithium lagoons, ventilator repair, even sustainability itself, and on and on, these many permutations are found well beyond the factory and farm. All the ways nearly everyone everywhere is subjected to the market, which during a time like this is increasingly anthropomorphized by politicians, could not be clearer.
I like the idea, especially, of the market “anthropomorphized,” although immediately upon imagining it so, I see it also transmogrified – but to quote further, giving a glimpse into Wallace et al.’s analysis of the linkages between agribusiness and pandemic:
Such [ecological] ideals are more than matters of the utopian. In doing so, we converge on immediate solutions. We protect the forest complexity that keeps deadly pathogens from lining up hosts for a straight shot onto the world’s travel network. We reintroduce the livestock and crop diversities, and reintegrate animal and crop farming at scales that keep pathogens from ramping up in virulence and geographic extent. We allow our food animals to reproduce onsite, restarting the natural selection that allows immune evolution to track pathogens in real time. Big picture, we stop treating nature and community, so full of all we need to survive, as just another competitor to be run off by the market.
As they opine, in short, “agribusiness is at war with public health. And public health is losing.” To start winning, they conclude, questioningly, that:
The way out is nothing short of birthing a world (or perhaps more along the lines of returning back to Earth). It will also help solve—sleeves rolled up—many of our most pressing problems. None of us stuck in our living rooms from New York to Beijing, or, worse, mourning our dead, want to go through such an outbreak again. Yes, infectious diseases, for most of human history our greatest source of premature mortality, will remain a threat. But given the bestiary of pathogens now in circulation, the worst spilling over now almost annually, we are likely facing another deadly pandemic in far shorter time than the hundred-year lull since 1918. Can we fundamentally adjust the modes by which we appropriate nature and arrive at more of a truce with these infections?
Meanwhile, Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo shared these helpful graphs showing that – minus data for New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut – there has been, as yet, no downward trend in either new confirmed COVID-19 cases, or in confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the US, and – as the Administration in DC doubles down on denialism, with Axios reporting that the President “and some top aides question [the] accuracy of [the] virus death toll” and that the President is likely “to begin publicly questioning the death toll as it closes in on his predictions for the final death count and damages him politically” (even as ample data shows that these same death tolls drastically underestimate the actual mortality) at the same time that leaked memos leave no doubt that the President and those around him know full well the consequences of their various actions (chief among them, pushing for premature “reopenings” in the absence of any meaningful preparation for the same) and inactions – whistleblower and former head of BARDA, Dr. Rick Bright, declared yesterday in a teleconference:
Time after time, I was pressured to ignore or dismiss expert and scientific recommendations, and instead to award lucrative contracts based on political connections. In other words, I was pressured to let politics and cronyism drive decisions, over the opinions of the best scientists we have in government.
Damning stuff, at this point, sadly, utterly predictable.
I’ve been of the opinion for some time that New York would come out of this in better shape than many other parts of this country, and – even with the threat of looming municipal receivership/insolvency; the cratering economy; the immense human suffering and trauma this pandemic has brought to our City; and the idiocy/callous indifference of a not-insignificant fraction of the City’s population – I’m still of that opinion. What I did not, necessarily, expect though, was that it would be truly sociopathic policies from DC and many state houses that would ensure such an outcome.
Writing on April 2nd, I overstated the case in guessing “it’s highly likely that the months of April and May will witness New York-style crises […] unfolding simultaneously across much of the United States,” and yet – through the horrifying interventions of our President and a number of governors – I may yet be proven correct.
Coming full circle, New York is islands, but it is not an island, and if the US further melts down (the irony of the usage being, of course, all those predictions from nationalistic pundits back in February that the outbreak in Wuhan would prove to be the Communist Party of China’s Chernobyl – although, perhaps they actually meant Chernobyl, so fully has our capacity for thought been corrupted by media), even with all our resources and relatively sound leadership – at least so far as reopening strategy is concerned – I struggle to see how we, here in New York, will be able to insulate ourselves while still getting on with our lives in any real fashion.
One struggles to find metaphors for what we’re witnessing/experiencing at the national level: It’s like losing the knife game (and in the process a finger), and then, with the blood still gushing and your friends rushing to apply a tourniquet, deciding instead to simply slit your own wrists. It’s like losing Russian roulette, but surviving the bullet, only to load all the pistol’s chambers intent on once again turning the gun upon yourself and pulling the trigger.
It’s idiotic. It’s suicidal. It’s omnicidal.
In short, it’s of a piece with how our country has been run for some time, and there are reasons to question whether the United States will ever properly recover, although, of course, after a fashion, it will. Maybe as fascist. Likely deeply attenuated. At best, chastened, humbled, and perhaps to some extent demonopolized and demilitarized.
We can dream, after all. But right now, I’m mostly afraid, which is a hard way to feel about the present.
Sujatha Gidla – “an M.T.A. conductor and author” whose life epitomizes so much of what is beautiful about this City – has a moving op-ed in the Times today about going back to work after her own harrowing bout with COVID-19, and in the wake of losing a number of beloved colleagues to the disease, but so as not to end with the NYT, which I mostly abhor, I encourage everyone to go listen to another powerful episode of Intercepted, this one on “The Politics of Sexual Misconduct.”
Doozy of a summer we are heading into, to put it lightly, and my strength and care go out to all the people of conscience around this country as I hope yours comes back to me.