Greetings from the epicenter. We are ensconced in my small downtown Manhattan apartment, social distancing as best we can and, so far, safe and healthy but warned that the worst is yet to come, an “apex” of contagion they believe is on its way over the next couple of weeks.
For now, and unlike far too many, we have plenty of food and water and heat and power, very different from Hurricane Sandy eight years ago when we lost electricity for nearly a week and had to temporarily leave the neighborhood. In fact, despite self-quarantine, Con Edison utility workers dutifully are drilling and hammering outside the building as I write this, digging up the street and doubtless doing something vital, but murdering concentration.
This is an eerie experience. We’re in the thick of it, yet cars and trucks still move down Seventh Avenue and pedestrians walk the sidewalks, albeit significantly fewer in number. The local park a couple of blocks away, where just a few days ago the benches were dangerously full, has been locked up. But a smaller park, a five-minute walk away, remains open.
Up to this point, area businesses deemed essential are operating; the grocery and drug store restock on a regular basis although short or empty of frequently hoarded toilet paper, sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, etc. The other day, I saw a young man load his shopping cart with several loaves of bread and dozens of eggs. I hoped he wasn’t hoarding; maybe he worked at a restaurant or was holding an illicit French toast party.
This is not to make light of a grim situation, merely to note a couple of the absurdities. Apparently, the gourmet chocolate shop nearby is essential, our independent bookstore is not. St. Vincent’s Hospital, which once had some 750 beds and helped lead the fight against HIV/AIDS, went out of business in 2010.
Those valuable rooms that would serve us so well right now have been turned into megabucks luxury apartments, many of them unoccupied, empty investments by the rich. Not too long ago, the $40 million penthouse was purchased by Starbucks chairman emeritus Howard Schultz, which is probably why one of those big Starbucks Reserve roasteries recently opened on the ground floor, even though there are plenty of regular Starbucks and other coffee joints within a stone’s throw. A billionaire’s caffeinated vanity.
I haven’t been on the subway in two and a half weeks or walked north of West 14th Street. My apartment building seems quiet—I can’t tell how many have left to get out of harm’s way but some packages have been sitting in the lobby for more than a week, which may be an indication. For now, we stay.
All things considered we’re fortunate and privileged, reasonably well positioned to weather the viral storm. In fact, despite what has been seen at other hospitals, the head of the smaller, emergency medical facility that replaced part of St. Vincent’s told our community board last week that contingency plans had been made for a possible overflow of COVID-19 patients and other than a shortage of masks claimed, “We’re very well prepared for this. We’re really well positioned to take care of this.”
Some on the right take such announcements as evidence that this all is no big deal, overhyped by the media and Democrats. This is, of course, insanity, the delusion of the credulous who will fall for any conspiracy theory, and who, over the last few years, have. At this point there are more 32,000 cases in New York City and 678 have died. Friends of friends are sick, some are dead.
You’ve seen the images of fear and mayhem from Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, where thirteen died in less than 24 hours. Not far from here, nearly three thousand beds are ready in a temporary hospital created by the Army Corps of Engineers at the Javits Convention Center. Other field hospitals are opening in Central Park and the outer boroughs, and the hospital ship USNS Comfort is docking at a midtown pier. Donald Trump bid it farewell on Saturday as the ship set sail from its base in Norfolk, Va.
Waving bye-bye stretches Trump’s abilities to the max. Each hour, he has proven himself a disaster at disaster, finally facing a crisis which, ultimately, he can’t spin as he usually does, although he is doing his damnedest, especially when it comes to currying favor with the wealthy and focusing on the protection of his re-election above all else.
Florida’s electoral votes mean more to him than human life, as evidenced over the weekend when he tried to foist a quarantine on New York and nearby states in part to keep residents from driving to the Sunshine State domain of Mar-a-Lago and his pal Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, described by the Miami Herald as “a timid leader in the face of the growing scourge.”
DeSantis has done little to protect his own Florida citizens—leaving beaches and bars open to partiers until just a few days ago. Now, apparently, he wants to shift the blame northward and Trump has tried to help, always remembering the narrow 1.2 percent margin by which he carried that state in 2016.
Further, as other states plead for material from the Strategic National Stockpile of critical medical supplies, The Washington Post reports that the government of Trump’s Florida “submitted a request on March 11 for 430,000 surgical masks, 180,000 N95 respirators, 82,000 face shields and 238,000 gloves, among other supplies — and received a shipment with everything three days later, according to figures from the state’s Division of Emergency Management. It received an identical shipment on March 23, according to the division, and is awaiting a third.”
Meanwhile, Massachusetts has received 17 percent of the gear it requested, Maine only five percent.
As blatant as this seeming favoritism may be, perhaps worse is Trump’s kowtowing to those in the business community, including many within his White House, who urge that sooner rather than later, America must return to the business of business and to hell with the potential loss of human life.
Fortunately, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and others pushed back. “We are not willing to sacrifice 1-2% of New Yorkers to this virus,” Cuomo wrote constituents on March 24. “That’s not who we are. My mother is not expendable. Your mother is not expendable. We will not put a dollar figure on human life. We can have a public health strategy that is consistent with an economic one. No one should be talking about social Darwinism for the sake of the stock market. The first order of business is to save lives.”
To think otherwise is monstrous, the awfulness made all the worse by Trump’s total lack of character or common sense. On Sunday alone, in the face of continuing tragedy, he bragged about his TV ratings, tried to excuse shortages by implying that hospital personnel might be stealing precious supplies and said that if total American deaths could be kept “between 100 and 200,000, we all together have done a very good job,” ignoring the ineptitude and lack of preparedness that have allowed this pandemic to strike so fiercely at our nation.
(This is stuff straight out of Doctor Strangelove, reminiscent of George C. Scott’s character, General Buck Turgidson, who urges preemptive nuclear war and tells his president, “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Depending on the breaks.”)
Trump’s previously stated urge to immediately get the stock market back on track and to be packing church pews on Easter Sunday has been thwarted by uncompromising reality. To end this devastation will take weeks and months.
We can do it, but this man who would be our mad king is less a legitimate ruler and more like Prince Prospero, the foolish, arrogant protagonist of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” who, in the face of a plague “devastating the countryside,” invites “a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court,” to join him for a rich man’s ball. Indifferent to the pain and sickness all around them, they socially isolate from the hoi polloi and indulge themselves in gluttony and greed until Death itself steals within and vanquishes them all.
Trump continues to be confusing and confused, inconstant, boastful, our lying fantasist-in-chief. Stymied by this virus, frustrated by his inability to throw the campaign rallies that are his oxygen, he has taken over the daily briefings of his coronavirus task force and turned them into rambling deceitful monologues of self-aggrandizement and attacks on the press. As said by many before, he should step aside and let those who have the expertise be in charge. Take your cherished, vainglorious victory lap when people truly are well again.
He won’t do it, of course, so we must be insistent and continue to call upon cooler more experienced leadership to take over.
Here in New York, taking a cue from others around the world, we have begun cheering and applauding from our windows every night at seven to honor those heroically defending us on the frontlines, including tens of thousands of volunteers, whether at hospitals or daycare centers, supermarkets or pharmacies.
“The country wants to get back to work,” Trump claims. Yes, we do, but first we must band together, support and love one another, bear the burden and wrestle this pestilence — both the human and viral kind — to the ground.
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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.