A View From a Pandemic: New York During COVID-19

Photograph Source: Ron Cogswell – CC BY 2.0

Living in New York City the past month has become a grim game of simply hoping that rock bottom has at least been hit. The haunting daily tolls continue to fill the local press. The first death from COVID-19 occurred on March 15. By March 31 there were around 1100 deaths. By April 7: 3485. April 13: 6898. On April 14 the city’s Health Department added 3700 deaths to the total to account for those who perished at home or in hospitals without being tested, bringing the count to over 10,000. The medical examiner’s office estimates that 200 a day are dying at home, compared to 20-25 people before the pandemic.

Hart Island, a mile-long stretch of soil off the Bronx that for generations has served as the city’s Potter’s Field, has seen burials quintuple. During normal times burials are scheduled once a week. Now they are happening five days a week. For a long time, prisoners from Rikers Island have labored as gravediggers. For the increased pandemic workload, the city offers prisoners personal protective gear and $6 per hour. A couple of weeks ago Mark Levine, city council member and chairman of its health committee, suggested that city parks could be dug up and used as mass graves (fitting in one sense- Washington Square Park and Madison Square Park are already built on top of the graves of victims of successive yellow fever pandemics). That suggestion was quickly dismissed by the Mayor’s Office.

The city’s glorious canopy of sound has been replaced by a never-ending drone of dull sirens. Still the city’s inept, tedious politics grinds on. Last week Mayor De Blasio and School Chancellor Raymond Carranza held a press conference to announce that city schools will remain closed for the rest of the academic year. The city government had dragged its feet on closing the schools in March as the cases of the virus began to surge. Yet an hour later Governor Andrew Cuomo, an ego-maniac and glory hog of the highest order who has managed to achieve messiah status in MSNBC circles, held his own press conference to announce that in fact he would make the call on the schools and that his decision hasn’t been made. Yesterday Cuomo extended the shutdown order to May 15.

This kind of tone was set from the beginning. For all the obvious outrage over Trump’s buffoonery, early on the New York politicians were not much better. At a press conference on Feb. 2, the city’s Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot, referring to the annual Lunar New Year parade in Chinatown, said ‘There is no reason not to take the subway, not to take the bus, not to go out to your favorite restaurant, and certainly not to miss the parade next Sunday.’ A week later Barbot declared on TV ‘We’re telling New Yorkers, go about your lives, take the subway, go out, enjoy life.’ As late as March 2, De Blasio tweeted ‘Since I’m encouraging New Yorkers to go on with your lives + get out on the town despite Coronavirus, I thought I would offer some suggestions. Here’s the first: thru Thurs 3/5 go see “The Traitor”…’.

New York is by far the most densely populated city in the U.S., and it has the highest use of public transit. Yet it is worth a comparison with San Francisco, the second densest city. The San Francisco Bay Area issued the country’ first shelter-in-place order on March 16. California Governor Gavin Newsom issued the statewide order three days later. Cuomo didn’t get around to it until March 22. He also dismissed the idea of a shelter-in-place for New York City on March 18, again just hours after De Blasio said residents should immediately prepare for it. While the exact effect of the delay will perhaps never be calculated, Tom Frieden, former director of the CDC, estimates the death toll in the city could have been cut by as much as 80 percent. New York has around 14 times as many deaths as California. San Francisco thus far has suffered 20 deaths.

Cuomo also just announced that the state, in conjunction with seven other East Coast states, hired McKinsey & Company to develop a science-based plan to reopen the states’ economies. An advisor to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy stated the goal is to ‘Trump-proof’ the plan. This is an ironic goal as the Trump administration has already paid the firm as much as $19 million dollars in recent weeks to advise the departments of Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs (McKinsey has also done business with an assorted cast of characters included state-owned enterprises in China and Erdogan’s government in Turkey). The idea is for McKinsey to produce models on key data points such as testing and infections that will guide decisions on how to reopen.

Those in New York who go back to the darkest days of the urban crisis from the late 1960s through the late 1970s, may recall that the city at the time partnered with the RAND Corporation to streamline fire service. A perfect storm of ‘systems analysis’ and budget cuts led to the withdrawal of firehouses from the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The inevitable fire epidemic emerged. For all the mythology about ghetto arson, until 1975, with the epidemic already well under way, the percentage of fires attributed to arson never rose above 1.1 percent. At its peak in the late 1970s arson still made up less than 7 percent most of which occurred in already burned out buildings. In their book A Plague on Your Houses, Deborah and Roderick Wallace calculated that fires displaced two million people citywide.

It the current moment, with much of the national focus is on the shuttered theaters on Broadway, the highest number of cases are outside Manhattan. Echoing the national trend, it is the poor, African-American neighborhoods in the Bronx, where social distancing is more of a luxury, that are dying at the highest rates. Such areas were the victim of expert management and budget cuts a generation ago. As the city faces large budget cuts and high-priced consultants again, the local government does not inspire hope for better results this time.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).