The Blood on New York's Hands

It's time to admit our city and its leaders helped cause this catastrophe.

At the end of May, when the virus was at its worst, I watched a bunch of paramedics in HAZMAT suits tromp into the building next to mine and come out with a body on a gurney. Then they left, lights flashing, most likely to pick up the next body in the list of over 21,000 people who have died in New York City from the coronavirus. They left the body behind, because there was nothing else they could do. As they were getting ready to leave, a team of National Guard soldiers showed up in a Hyundai hatchback and loaded the body bag into a white van leased from a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based vehicle rental company. Then it drove away and I went to bed.

Now, a month later, the worst of New York City’s outbreak appears to be over. The city is starting to open back up. What that means is unclear to me.

If I want to, I can go to a bar or restaurant tonight and sit outside and drink a glass of wine and order an appetizer. If my table is a little ways away from the restaurant’s other tables, as it’s supposed to be, I could take off my mask and probably be fine. I don’t remember specifically the last time I went to a restaurant and sat down and ordered a meal but I think it was at some point in early March. At that point we thought everything was pretty much fine. I took the subway to the martial arts gym I used to go to on like March 8th or 9th and saw a few people wearing masks. The gym had a huge thing of hand sanitizer at the door so I figured it was mostly ok. A full week later, Mayor Bill de Blasio went on TV and told everyone to go out to the bars one last time for good luck.

It was not ok. I should not have gone to the gym that day. My girlfriend should not have gone to a birthday brunch for one of her friends that weekend. It turned out that one guy who was there had COVID, but we didn’t find out till later. Other people who were there later went to Florida or Michigan and a couple of other places that I forget. I figured it wasn’t my business to judge the personal choices that people make, even though we now know that those choices, made either in ignorance or arrogance and enabled by the utter negligence of our leadership, have killed thousands of people. Over the next few months or maybe years, who knows, the outbreak that metastasized in New York City will be responsible for thousands upon thousands more deaths.

I don’t think I’d fully reckoned with this until I saw the big data visualization project the New York Times put out on Thursday morning. The project tracks how the coronavirus spread around America and how we got to our current reality, where New York is somewhat on the mend but huge parts of the rest of the country are just absolutely fucked. The Times project is worth going through if you want to get freaked out and scared, especially because half of it relies on invasive cell-phone GPS tracking data that the Times also did an exposé on a few months ago. But we’ll look past that for now because I want to talk about this. From the piece:

Tracking signature genetic mutations of the virus allows researchers to estimate the influence of early outbreaks. Early on, variants prominent in Seattle’s outbreak were found more frequently.

But later samples showed that a variant found often in New York City’s outbreak had become much more widespread. A new analysis of thousands of mutations also points directly back to New York, Dr. Bedford said.

The timeline of the piece, broadly, looks like this. The virus gets really bad in Seattle in late February and early March and starts to spread from there. But while it’s doing that, COVID is also quietly exploding in New York, just getting absolutely massive, sickening thousands and thousands of people while most of us just kinda bumble around figuring that the big jug of hand sanitizer at the gym is basically good, and that de Blasio and Cuomo have their shit together.

Here’s a screenshot of the Times story.

Here’s some more quotes:

People leaving New York City made about 2.8 million trips to the Hudson Valley. Some carried the virus with them, and outbreaks there accelerated in mid-March, the likely result of travel from New York, a Times analysis found.

People also made more than 25,000 trips to New Orleans, where genetic data suggests that a large early outbreak stemmed from infections from New York, according to Karthik Gangavarapu, a computational scientist at Scripps Research, and Dr. Bedford.

Travel from the city helped to spread that variant across the country.

“New York has acted as a Grand Central Station for this virus,” said David Engelthaler of the Translational Genomics Research Institute.

[…]

More than 22,000 deaths in the New York City area could have been avoided if the country had started social distancing just one week earlier, Columbia University researchers estimate.

One of the easiest things to do when things go wrong is turn a structural crisis into one of “personal responsibility.” There are many groups who are easy to blame during this pandemic: the death-squad cosplayers trying to reopen the local Applebees at gunpoint, the morons flooding Chelsea and the East Village the second good weather hit and the bars started doing to-go margs, the privileged white people who fled the city to their summer homes upstate or in the Hamptons or elsewhere in the country.

This is a narrative that works well for politicians. They can cast themselves, like Andrew Cuomo, as embattled leaders struggling very hard to keep everyone safe, while pointing the finger at their enemies’ missteps and blaming the consequences of their mistakes on the people they affect. As the disease continues to recede in New York, Cuomo and de Blasio will almost certainly point to their actions as a model of resourcefulness in controlling the pandemic. They will be very careful to separate their record from that of openly homicidal leaders like Texas’s Greg Abbott or Donald Trump. Trump of course bears the most responsibility for the deaths of Americans, that point is not up for debate. What the Times’ piece shows in very clear, plain language is that Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio also deserve an enormous share of the blame.

This does not absolve us of our personal decisions: if you traveled from New York City to another place in the month of March or April or May you must live with the fact that you were demonstrably culpable in the spread of a virus which continues to kill. But the lion’s share of that burden must rest on the people whose negligence and denial made the abandonment of personal responsibility incredibly easy. It was their job to keep us safe, healthy, and employed in spite of human natures’ endemic stupidity, and they failed. The only thing we can do now is deny them the chance to take a victory lap over the 22,000 bodies they stacked up like cordwood in the back of trucks. Thanks to their failure, the rest of the country has barely begun to count.

Photo: Jack Crosbie