Last week I was talking online with one of my oldest friends, who lives in California. Inquiring about how things are in New York, he asked, “Have you heard a lot more sirens lately?”
“Funny you should ask,” I said. “I have. At least I think I have. But I wasn’t sure if it’s just my imagination, or paranoia, or maybe that they just stand out more because the streets are so quiet.”
“It’s not your imagination,” he said, and I listened, because he is on the faculty of the Homeland Security program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. “The FDNY’S EMS department got more 911 calls yesterday than any day in its history.”
We are told that New York City is now the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than half of the United States’ confirmed cases in New York state as the US passes China for the most worldwide. (“We’re number 1! We’re number 1!”) After taking about a month to hit 1000, the national death toll doubled to more than 2000 in two days and only promises to get worse in the next month, or so we are told by reliable authorities. The countervailing misinformation from unreliable authorities only adds to the anxiety and confusion.
Here in Brooklyn, the streets are eerily silent and empty.
People in surgical masks scurry away from you.
Supermarkets have guards posted outside to regulate the number of customers who can go in at any one time.
Most businesses are shuttered, and the ones that aren’t—like the car wash on my corner here in Gowanus—astonish me even more.
Runners still traverse the streets, more than ever, it seems, with all the gyms closed. Being able to go outside for a brief daily walk is a godsend. But now we are hearing word that even that is unsafe. What limited human interaction remains is fraught with anxiety that has accelerated even from last week. Even in the stairwells and laundry rooms of apartment buildings, neighbors keep their distance (as they should, of course).
Friends in the service industry—waiters, bartenders, cooks, musicians, actors, barbers, shop employees, and many others—are all out of work and face dire and immediate financial repercussions. The ripple effect will eventually hit us all, while the impact on the homeless and most vulnerable is beyond imagination.
But as surreal and sinister as life is hunkered down in our apartments, it would be easy to miss just how bad things really are……unless you need medical care.
The stories coming out of New York’s already overwhelmed emergency rooms and ICUs are chilling: of patients “hotcotting” ventilators like submarine crewmen, of doctors and nurses using trashbags as makeshift surgical gowns and plastic takeout lids as facemasks, of reefer vans called in to accommodate the bodies. The Javits Center is being turned into a giant hospital ward, the USHS Comfort is pulling into the harbor, and Army field hospitals are going up in Central Park.
Even while living in the middle of it, like most New Yorkers, I see these nightmarish images primarily on the news (and I pray it stays that way). Worrying numbers of FDNY and NYPD personnel are already out sick, further debilitating the capacity of the system. The infection rate among medical staff is even more alarming, with the peak of the pandemic still two to three weeks away, by the best estimates. And as Italy foreshadowed the US, New York is foreshadowing the rest of the country, with New Orleans close behind. (Worse, in fact, in terms of the impact per capita.)
To quote Fannie Lou Hamer, from another context, is this America? These are the problems of an impoverished Third World country, not one of the richest and most developed, one that flatters itself to be “exceptional,” and the leader of what we used to call the Free World. The pandemic is a natural disaster, but our unpreparedness to handle it is the bitter fruit of the deliberate choices we as a nation have made: to allow our healthcare system to atrophy and rot, to embrace Gilded Age levels of inequality, to value profits over humanity.
Because the most galling part of all is that it didn’t have to be so.
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
In an epic piece for The Guardian, Ed Pilkington and Tom McCarthy report on the diametrically different responses of South Korea and the US, which both saw their first case of the coronavirus manifest on January 20:
One country acted swiftly and aggressively to detect and isolate the virus, and by doing so has largely contained the crisis. The other country dithered and procrastinated, became mired in chaos and confusion, was distracted by the individual whims of its leader, and is now confronted by a health emergency of daunting proportions.
Within a week of its first confirmed case, South Korea’s disease control agency had summoned 20 private companies to the medical equivalent of a war-planning summit and told them to develop a test for the virus at lightning speed. A week after that, the first diagnostic test was approved and went into battle, identifying infected individuals who could then be quarantined to halt the advance of the disease.
Some 357,896 tests later, the country has more or less won the coronavirus war. On Friday only 91 new cases were reported in a country of more than 50 million.
The US response tells a different story. Two days after the first diagnosis in Washington state, Donald Trump went on air on CNBC and bragged: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming from China. It’s going to be just fine.”
In terms of total deaths, the US will soon surpass China, where the virus first appeared, despite being just a quarter of its size. And China’s toll has essentially flattened out at around 3300 thus far, while the American curve continues to rise on the way to what Dr. Anthony Fauci now projects to be 100,000 to 200,000 nationwide before this is all over. (The worst case scenario posited by Dr. Neil Ferguson of Imperial College in London that finally caught the Trump administration’s attention projected 2.2 million dead in the US if there were to be no government intervention at all.)
Despite the dishonest claims of Trump’s followers that he is being unfairly blamed for an unforeseeable natural disaster, the numbers above bespeak precisely what he can be held blamed for: how criminally poorly he handled a crisis that was in fact very much foreseen and could have been prepared for, and was by other nations.
(T)he Trump administration forced a catastrophic strategic surprise onto the American people. But unlike past strategic surprises—Pearl Harbor, the Iranian revolution of 1979, or especially 9/11—the current one was brought about by unprecedented indifference, even willful negligence….
The White House detachment and nonchalance during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak will be among the most costly decisions of any modern presidency. These officials were presented with a clear progression of warnings and crucial decision points far enough in advance that the country could have been far better prepared. But the way that they squandered the gifts of foresight and time should never be forgotten, nor should the reason they were squandered: Trump was initially wrong, so his inner circle promoted that wrongness rhetorically and with inadequate policies for far too long, and even today. Americans will now pay the price for decades.
Pilkington and McCarthy’s piece is called “The Missing Six Weeks: How Trump Failed the Biggest Test of his Life,” and it is aptly titled:
Those missing four to six weeks are likely to go down in the definitive history as a cautionary tale of the potentially devastating consequences of failed political leadership…..
Most worryingly, the curve of cases continues to rise precipitously, with no sign of the plateau that has spared South Korea.
“The US response will be studied for generations as a textbook example of a disastrous, failed effort,” Ron Klain, who spearheaded the fight against Ebola in 2014, told a Georgetown university panel recently. “What’s happened in Washington has been a fiasco of incredible proportions.”
Jeremy Konyndyk, who led the US government’s response to international disasters at USAid from 2013 to 2017, frames the past six weeks in strikingly similar terms. He told the Guardian: “We are witnessing in the United States one of the greatest failures of basic governance and basic leadership in modern times.”
Trump is dancing as fast as he can to convince America that he is our savior and not the man who led us into a historic but avoidable catastrophe. And some believe him, and always will, even as the corpses pile up. But the majority of Americans, being sentient creatures, see the awful truth. And history damn sure will.
LOVE THE ONE(S) YOU’RE WITH
Twenty years ago I edited a documentary for Showtime called Yesterday’s Tomorrows, about how people in the past imagined the future. (It was the brainchild of Barry Levinson, who directed it, produced by Richard Berge, with associate producer Kenn Rabin.) Most of it was lighthearted—the 1939 World’s Fair, Bucky Fuller’s Dymaxion car and the Monsanto home of the future, jet packs and video phones and colonies on Mars. But the climax of the film dealt with dystopias, and featured a new interview Richard conducted with Charlton Heston, commenting on the trio of dark-hued sci-fi movies he made between 1968 and 1973: Planet of the Apes, Omega Man, and Soylent Green. Notwithstanding Heston’s odious politics, particularly his shilling for the NRA, he was a gracious interviewee, and even gamely repeated for us Soylent Green’s famous climactic line. (Spoiler alert: don’t watch at dinnertime.)
I keep thinking back to those not especially good films, especially Omega Man, when I look out at the desolate streets of New York. It’s a case of life imitating art, at least in how we process it. Since no one is left alive who remembers the Spanish flu, we have no first person experience of a pandemic on this scale. In terms of verisimilitude, science fiction offers our only points of comparison. (And there’s no lack of them. See also 28 Days Later, The Leftovers, The Walking Dead, The Road, et al.) It’s the same dynamic at play with war movies, where “realism” is an accolade that usually means “measured up to Saving Private Ryan,” not “reminded me of Khe Sanh.”
The empty streets are more surreal in their way than the rubblized remains of German or Japanese cities after the Allied firebombing of World War II, which represent a more conventional kind of destruction. I think also of the “neutron bomb” and the headscratching that greeted the concept when it was first explained to the American people in the 1970s and ‘80s. A bomb that kills people but leaves buildings standing?
The images it conjured are very much like the lifeless streets of the five boroughs right now.
I am sure that my experience of lockdown and shelter-in-place is not remarkably different from most New Yorkers’. Ironically, it is proving a boon to Amazon, Facebook, and Netflix, three giant corporations that were already in the process of taking over the world.
Perhaps the only solace is this rare and unexpected time of forced togetherness with loved ones. Presuming we survive it, we may look back on this time as a strangely sweet one, in terms of closeness with our families. (Of course, that presents its challenges too, which in turn has generated plenty of comedy on the web.) A friend with college-age children remarked to me that he and his wife would probably never have had three—or more—months of this kind of uninterrupted communion with their two sons ever again, were it not for this lockdown. (Not for nothing, his wife is a doctor treating patients with COVID-19.) For those of us with young children, it’s equally poignant.
Like any life-threatening event, the coronavirus has tended to strip away the quotidian bullshit and forced our attention onto the things that really matter in the human condition.
Of course, we could just as easily have done that with a weekend meditation retreat.
As NYC has emerged as the pandemic’s global epicenter, the term “Ground Zero” is being tossed about, which is a bitter irony for all of us who lived through 9/11. There are similarities of course, but also vast differences. Both nightmares spurred camaraderie and a sense of collective resilience and community among New Yorkers….but in this case it’s all done from a distance. 9/11 of course also set in motion a chain of events that would reshape the modern world, most dramatically with the Iraq war and a new evolution of the national security state and permanent state of endless war. The long term effects of COVID promise to be similarly extensive, though in what form we can only speculate.
But unlike 9/11, which was very much a communal experience, it is the particular cruelty of this contagion that the sick must suffer in solitude without loved ones to comfort them, and go to their graves in funerals without mourners. Hey, I read Sartre and Kierkegaard and Camus and that lot in school, like everyone; I know we all die alone. But this puts a particularly fine point on it.
A QUICK CHECK-IN WITH NERO
As this blog is usually a go-to, one-stop-shop for vitriol against our tangerine-tinted tyrant, I would be remiss if I did not include a quick recap of all the latest things to make your blood boil. And there were plenty of them this week, like last week, and I’ll wager next week too. (Vegas is giving long odds on Don suddenly becoming an empathetic, competent, Rooseveltian leader.)
Charlie Sykes made the analogy that “Trump is an arsonist who wants to be given credit for being a fireman,” but the metaphor falls apart at the “fireman” part. He’s more like an arsonist who continues to flick matches onto the blaze.
There was his demand for praise from governors before he would release desperately needed emergency supplies to them. (In addition to the everpresent demands of his insatiable ego, Trump also wants bites he can use in campaign ads, from Democratic governors in particular.)
There was his press conference of March 23rd that put me in mind of Churchill—you remember, his famous “blood, sweat, toil, and tears” speech of 1940, when he told the British people: “This is all gonna be over very soon, I promise you, believe me.”
There was his petty, petty signing ceremony for the bipartisan stimulus bill, which passed the Senate 100-0, but to which he invited zero Democrats. (Bonus: Trump, Mnuchin, Kudlow, Pence, McConnell, Chao, McCarthy, et al stood shoulder to shoulder and Don handed out pens without a Purell bottle in sight.)
Immediately after that signing, there was his shameless push to gut the oversight provisions to keep this from being a slush fund/slash/personal ATM for the GOP and the Trump family that Democrats fought so hard to stop. (“I’ll be the oversight,” said Dracula, volunteering to watch the bloodbank.)
There was his reported insistence that the relief checks that are to go out to almost every individual American taxpayer bear his serial killer-like signature, not that of a Treasury Department functionary as would be routine.
There was his insane suggestion that he might disregard the advice of every public health expert and try to “re-open America” for business as usual as early as Easter. (This notion was driven, we learned, by Jared Kushner, the poster boy for arrogant entitlement and unearned self-confidence, who apparently has been whispering in his father-in-law’s ear that the Dr. Faucis of the world are a bunch of Chicken Littles. Kush-Kush should stick to his areas of expertise, like bringing peace to the Middle East.) Fortunately, reckless as Trump’s suggestion was, he does not have the kind of unilateral power to do that that he imagines. We are lucky to have the likes of Andrew Cuomo, Gavin Newsom, Gretchen Whitmer, Jay Inslee, Phil Murphy, and the like looking out for us.
There was his unconscionable scoffing at New York’s need for upwards of 40,000 ventilators, and his delay in invoking the full force of the Defense Production Act to mobilize industry to make them and other urgently needed personal protective equipment.
There was his implication that hospital workers are stealing masks and selling them on the black market, a vile lie doubly dishonest because it’s delivered with his trademark qualifying shrug. (“A lot of people are saying….I dunno, someone should look into it.”) Here he betrayed his usual grifter’s instincts, for as Scott Sinkler writes, “There are two things you can absolutely rely on Trump for: 1) To always say the thing that’s the exact opposite of the truth, and 2) To always accuse people of doing the exact thing he’s doing, or would do if given the chance.”
There were his sociopathic tweets about the great ratings his daily press briefings are getting, even as thousands of Americans are dying, which may be a new low even for him. Truly, fiction bends the knee at the sheer monstrousness of this real life ogre. (And yet Trump supporters I know continue to praise and support him, and what’s more, insist that he is a great altruist and humanitarian. Jim Jones never had a flock so suicidally devoted.)
There were his continuing, jawdroppingly irresponsible musings about possible cures and snake oil remedies—misinformation that is not merely inaccurate, but represents a genuine threat to people who unaccountably rely on Donald Trump as their main source of medical information, which a majority of Republicans do. (Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight reports that, “Nine of the ten states that have seen the most rapid increase in coronavirus from Monday to Thursday are states that voted for Trump in 2016.”)
There was his macabre, goalpost-moving self-congratulation at Dr. Fauci’s estimate of hundreds of thousands of dead. As Heather Digby Parton wrote in Salon, “Last month Trump was assuring us that the U.S. only had 15 cases and they would be down to zero in no time—and now pretty much any number below 2.2 million is proof that his genius leadership saved hundreds of thousands of lives.”
In short, Trump remains possibly the worst imaginable person to have in charge during a crisis of this sort and scope, one focused almost exclusively on how he looks, on how he can dodge responsibility, how he can downplay it with gaslighting and magical thinking and even use it for his own financial and electoral gain.
As Peter Wehner writes in The Atlantic:
The qualities we most need in a president during this crisis are calmness, wisdom, and reassurance; a command of the facts and the ability to communicate them well; and the capacity to think about the medium and long term while carefully weighing competing options and conflicting needs. We need a leader who can persuade the public to act in ways that are difficult but necessary, who can focus like a laser beam on a problem for a sustained period of time, and who will listen to—and, when necessary, defer to—experts who know far more than he does. We need a president who can draw the nation together rather than drive it apart, who excels at the intricate work of governing, and who works well with elected officials at every level. We need a chief executive whose judgment is not just sound, but exceptional.
There are some 325 million people in America, and it’s hard to think of more than a handful who are more lacking in these qualities than Donald Trump.
THE TIMES THAT TRY
We are living through a surreal moment that beggars everything that has come before in the previous four years, and that—ICYMI—was already pretty surreal. Even the battle over Trump, who himself represents an unprecedented threat to the republic, has been dwarfed by the coronavirus and the unforeseeable ways it promises to reshape almost every aspect of American life. It remains to be seen just how epochal this crisis will be, but it is not inconceivable that it will mark a sea change on the order of the Great Depression or the Second World War. The coming weeks will begin to tell the tale.
We are up against a force of nature and can’t yet know the outcome. But already we have seen acts of tremendous courage and selflessness from many of our countrymen, with healthcare providers and first responders leading the way. Despite our worse-than-leaderlessness at the top, no matter how bad this pandemic gets, I retain my faith in my fellow Americans and in humanity full stop to rise to the occasion and help one another to endure and prevail. We can’t control anything else—only how we acquit ourselves in this crucible.
Outside I can still hear the sirens.
Photo: Getty Images