We have no balcony but many windows from which we can see south down Ninth Avenue into the 30s and east on West 58th to Columbus Circle and even parts of Central Park. In normal times West 58th would be teeming with foot traffic in both directions, much of it related to either Mt Sinai West Hospital that sits next to our apartment building and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (enrollment of more than 13,000 undergraduates). Now, almost no one is on the street and there is little traffic. Few of the distinctive yellow taxis because no one is looking for rides.. Even the ambulances that normally come and go all day and night with sirens blasting are few and far between. The city is silent.
We remain self-sequestered in our 50th floor apartment. I have left it only twice since March 10, once for a disturbing walk around the block and once to go to a clinic where my “symptoms” were judged to be caused by a cold I’ve had since before coronavirus was recognized as rampant among us. I returned home from that experience chastened and profoundly disturbed at the incoming hourly news of the spreading catastrophe. I finally determined not to watch any more Coronavirus Task Force “press briefings” from the White House. The last straw was the dragging onstage of the Bible-thumper Pillow Guy who used the occasion to proclaim that the president was brought to us by God to save us from the virus. The constant slavering pandering to the president’s ego is more than I can bear to watch as thousands are dying and hundreds of thousands are suffering.
As you know if you follow the news, all of New York City is the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, a dubious distinction of the worst type in the current circumstances. Broadway shows, ballet at Lincoln Center, Jazz at Lincoln Center and elsewhere, all shuttered along with the restaurants. Food deliveries are no long permitted to be brought to our door; someone must venture to the lobby to pick up everything. Absent a genuine emergency, medical appointments must be conducted by videoconference. How fortunate we are that such technology is available to us. We recently had a Zoom visit with some friends in Brooklyn, a delightful respite from the bleakness everywhere we look.
Which brings me to what is really most puzzling and disturbing. From up here, it appears that the people of New York are observing the social distancing practices recommended by the government and health experts. Of course, we can only see a tiny portion of the city, but you must wonder why the social distancing practices would vary dramatically from the limited area we can view. In any case, the number of new COVID-19 cases in New York City continues to surge. Experts are now suggesting that the early advice about how the virus spreads in the community was inaccurate. That is not a criticism because this is a new virus and the experts are learning more about it every day. But the reality appears to be that social distancing as thus far practiced has not “flattened the curve” sufficiently. The peak or apex day when the number of new cases begins to reverse is at least a week away. Maybe no one really appreciated how fast and how deeply the virus had reached before the true scale of the threat was understood.
Elsewhere, irrationality borne of cult-like beliefs in the unbelievable are causing the leaders of numerous states, mainly in the south, to either reject the experts’ medical advice entirely or to apply it very selectively. Only when the inevitable occurs and COVID-19 cases begin to surge do these geniuses decide that some response is required. Meanwhile, thousands of people crowd still-open beaches and continue about their daily lives as if nothing had happened. This is not, I must admit, solely a product of southern, religious or other regional misjudgment of reality. Even in New York City when the decision was made to leave open the many public playgrounds that dot the city, many New Yorkers flocked to them and behaved as if it was just another day in the park. The city noticed that social distancing practices were being ignored and closed the playgrounds.
I cannot leave this subject without noting another stark difference between New York and the Republican stronghold states around the country. I refer to leadership. As I was considering this post, a piece by Jon Katz appeared in the Bedlam Farm Journal, The Cuomo Brothers Versus The President: What A Show! https://bit.ly/2x2eHx8 Katz is a “former journalist and media critic” who compares the leadership performances of Donald Trump and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo during the COVID-19 crisis. I think Katz’s analysis is excellent with one major exception. He seems to think that Trump and Cuomo are basically the same except that Cuomo is better at presentation. I, on the other hand, believe that the differences are so stark and fundamental that they are a difference in kind, not merely in style.
Katz’s article contains much of what I had intended to say after watching Cuomo’s press briefing on Friday. He sat at a table flanked by senior advisors and experts in health and finance. His presentation was not accompanied by a cast of business executives parading to a microphone to sing the governor’s praises. Instead, Cuomo’s remarks related to a series of charts and graphs showing the extent of the challenges New York City and state face from the coronavirus. Much of it was bad news: “At the current burn rate we will be out of ventilators in six days.” The little good news was marked with warnings about undue optimism that could mislead people into taking unnecessary and dangerous (to themselves and others) risks by departing too soon from the social distancing and other measures designed, it is hoped, to “flatten the curve” in virus case growth and deaths. Hospitals and the doctors, nurses, orderlies and others laboring there are reaching the breaking point.
The data was clear and stark and frightening. Cuomo glossed over nothing. He spoke in full sentences in simple New York-accented English. No word salad, no gibberish, no self-praise. Just simple language, elegant in its simplicity and directness, intended to communicate both concern about the harsh realities and encouragement that we will get through this together. He carefully avoided engaging Trump in a war of words and recriminations when reporters tried to bait him into reacting to Trump’s verbal insults to New York and its health care workers.
And, in total contrast to the self-referential obsessions of the president, Cuomo said “If we fail, it’s on me.” Near, I think, to the limits of emotional control, he said “I’m doing everything I can, but people are still dying. It is very hurtful and painful. I take it very personally.” Then, after an hour of speaking hard truths and answering questions, Cuomo looked to his advisors: “Anything I said that is wrong? Now is the time to speak up.” The cameras were still rolling and there is no doubt that if any of his experts had something to qualify about his presentation, they were being called out in public to do it in full public view.
You likely will never see Donald Trump do anything like that. He maintains that everything he does and says is perfect. He is anointed and therefore cannot make mistakes. Remember that after downplaying the risks of the coronavirus while the rest of the world was being overrun by it, after claiming it was completely under control and predicting that it would soon drop to zero cases in the United States, Trump said, on camera, “No, I do not take responsibility.”
So, Cuomo: If we fail, it’s on me.
And Trump: I take no responsibility and deny I said what I said.