It makes you want to scream, reading the growing number of post-mass-mortems on the failed responses to COVID-19 in New York City and State. I’ve personally been hammering away at the failures of Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo since the first half of March, and – with wider reach – Akash Mehta of Jacobin and Ross Barkan of the Guardian (and his own recently-launched project, The Cuomo Files) have done great reporting holding Cuomo, in particular, to account.
In early April, the New York Times, which has been largely pliant in the face of the Governor’s muscular attempts to re-write history and shift blame away from himself for New York’s COVID-19 catastrophe, published a long-ish piece, “How Delays and Unheeded Warnings Hindered New York’s Virus Fight,” which was pointedly critical of both Cuomo and de Blasio. Roughly a month later, the New Yorker came out with a long-form comparative piece showing how Seattle’s reliance on science and dependence on leadership from public health experts led to a drastically better initial outcome in confronting the pandemic than that which – with our wishful, politicized response – we experienced in New York. Over the weekend, this investigative piece from ProPublica – entitled “Two Coasts. One Virus. How New York Suffered Nearly 10 Times the Number of Deaths as California.” – provided further insights into just how tragically wrong elected executives in New York got the response.
To date, I’ve largely focused on Governor Cuomo – the more skillful, the more powerful, and the more dangerous of the two politicians in question – but today, I’m going to briefly excoriate our lame duck Mayor, Bill de Blasio: This craven and self-serving man should be driven from politics, and indeed, from public life, in New York City for the rest of his days. He’s committed the municipal equivalent of treason, and shows no signs of remorse, let alone contrition. The case is heavy against him, but, given that it has been thoroughly and skillfully made in the pieces to which I link above, I’ll simply offer some brief background, and then encourage you to read up.
Bumbling though de Blasio may be, I’ve been inclined, until relatively recently, to offer him my measured support during his two terms as New York City’s mayor. As my own understanding of New York’s history and politics has deepened, and I came to have a better sense of the iniquitous legacies of the Giuliani-Bloomberg era (of which de Blasio’s tenure increasingly looks like an extension, with only minor modifications), I gave de Blasio credit for his successes in social policy (which are outlined at length in Juan Gonzalez’s Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities) even while often shaking my head at his incompetence. He was, after all, confronting reactionary forces in the form of the NYPD and its PBA, Murdoch’s Post, and much of the City’s ruling class, and I strove to give him the benefit of the doubt as his administration chalked up real progressive achievements in spite of spite right-wing opposition, even as he showed himself to be gaffe-prone and communicationally clumsy.
But as his first term gave way to a second, and his interest in actually governing the City seemed to wane, it became harder and harder not to hold this gawky goose of a man in contempt. There were the campaign finance scandals; the questions about massive misuse of funds by the mental health initiative headed by his wife; his utter lack of interest in New York’s wounded mass transit system (a system which, admittedly, is largely in the Governor’s control, but for which the Mayor’s neglect gave the lie to his vaunted arrival, by subway, at his first inauguration; in truth, the Mayor only travels by car, and is not the man of the people he made himself out to be); his pitiful gym routine – the proof, if any further was necessary, that he is no everyday New Yorker – which, throughout his mayoralty, has involved his being driven by SUV with police accompaniment the 11 miles from Gracie Mansion to his preferred YMCA in Park Slope; his quixotic/vanity presidential campaign at a time when pressing issues (such as the skyrocketing rate of homelessness, the climate crisis, the state of the MTA, housing affordability, etc.) in the City could really have used his attention; and, finally – the nail in 25,000+ coffins and counting – his disastrous, unaccountable, in my view nearly criminal handling of the pandemic.
Again, all the relevant facts are outlined in detail in the pieces linked above, and I’ve also written extensively in recent months about a number of the Mayor’s failings. Chief among them, however, was his not only ignoring, but hamstringing and humbling, our world-class Health Department. It’s now clear that the Mayor was warned in detail and repeatedly for months, and with increasingly dire urgency, about the threat COVID-19 posed to the City before he at last took action in mid-March. But rather than learn from his own tragic mistakes, come to the people of New York City himself now humbled by his abject failures, and – as anyone with decency and courage would do – apologize and seek forgiveness, he has continued to sideline the Health Department – the warnings of which he neglected in sailing us full steam ahead into this storm – instead continuing to prioritize the advice of and cede leadership to Dr. Mitchell Katz, head of NYC Health and Hospitals, who is quoted in the ProPublica piece above as having written, in an email to the Mayor on March 10th, as follows:
[There is] no proof that closures will help stop the spread […] We have to accept that unless a vaccine is rapidly developed, large numbers of people will get infected. The good thing is greater than 99 percent will recover without harm. Once people recover they will have immunity. The immunity will protect the herd.
We now know – as we knew at the time Katz made the above claims – that we don’t know enough to have any certainty about the viability of a herd immunity strategy relative to this pandemic, and the experiences of other cities and countries had already made clear by early March the disastrous consequences for individuals, healthcare systems, and economies of inaction in the face of the possibility of the disease’s rapid spread. We also know – and have known for more than a century – that social distancing is extremely effective in reducing disease burden. So when Mitchell Katz claimed that there is “no proof,” he was either lying or an idiot, to put it bluntly. Just this morning, in fact, a study from the journal Health Affairs is getting a lot of media attention for its conclusion that places that engage in no social distancing measures experience “more than 35 times greater spread” of COVID-19 relative to places that pursue a maximalist social distancing strategy.
This is the man who Mayor de Blasio – in sidelining our world-famous Health Department, and out of pig-headed arrogance – has chosen to put in charge of the essential contact tracing effort in New York City. As the Mayor’s March 16th visit to the Park Slope YMCA made clear, he may be a tall man, but he is a small, self-involved person. He has utterly betrayed the people of New York, for which – until he comes forward in honest contrition – he should never be forgiven. Blood is on his hands, and daily, more will continue to be added to it so long as he continues to prioritize self-interested politics (for I suspect it was fear of alienating key power bases in view of his wife’s political ambitions rather than any deep concern about New York’s poor that drove him to homicidally postpone closing the public schools; if you doubt my assessment, consider where the burden of COVID-19 mortality has been heaviest in the five boroughs, and the toll that our monumental mishandling of the pandemic is now taking on the City’s poor and working classes) and petty personal differences over finally starting to get our COVID-19 response right.
In India, Japan, Brazil, Chile, Kenya, and Bangladesh, the COVID-19 news is bad. Around the US, the news is bad and getting worse as well. (On cruise ships, in a nightmarish story I hadn’t been following, the news is unimaginable.) This is the global storm we knew was coming, that has been upon us for months, but is now whipping into full force.
And yet, here in New York City, the Mayor’s response looks increasingly like the President’s: Spreading misinformation, suppressing free speech, neglecting the most vulnerable, instituting austerity. Check, check, check, and check.
What has the Mayor been doing? In short, not much, and even less good. He should not be able to lie and misdirect his way out of this, and his political career should end with his term, if not before. Should the Mayor choose to do us all a favor and resign, I would, at this point, very much welcome a Mayor Jumaane Williams.
Postscript: Some of my reluctance to attack de Blasio springs from the fact that he has very often been subject to (dishonest, vicious) attacks from the right. Tomorrow, I’ll look at a piece by Glenn Greenwald that sheds light on a similarly challenging political dynamic, but for now, we can only look forward to a day when the horizon of political possibilities has opened back up, and when the left flank of the right wing no longer passes for progressive. In the meantime, if you know someone who has died of COVID-19, nonprofit newsroom THE CITY is working to memorialize the City’s many dead.