New Yorkers pull together once again

The mobilisation to meet the threat of coronavirus has been inspiring.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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The eyes of America are on New York. The city and its surrounding areas have become the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in the US. About 40 per cent of the country’s positive cases of Covid-19 are in New York State. New York City’s hospitals are nearing their capacity, and the expected peak is still about two weeks away.

I write from the safety of upstate New York, where we have only a handful of cases at the moment. We are too far north to be a retreat for affluent Big Apple residents, who have fled to their second homes in the country or the beaches of the Hamptons. Here we are subject to the same shutdown as our downstate kin, and the more immediate concern is our neighbours, who have been thrown out of work or whose small businesses are closed. We watch the scenes of overstretched medical staff in New York City and, like much of the country, wonder if we’re next.

Some on the east coast hope they can stop the contagion in New York from reaching their doorsteps. Rhode Island had the National Guard checking for New York car license plates, before rescinding the order. Florida has instructed people from the New York metro area to self-quarantine for 14 days, or face a 60-day jail sentence and fines of up to $500. President Trump, shooting from the hip as usual, floated the idea of setting up a cordon around the New York area, before dropping it the next day.

New York is now like a region bracing for a hurricane to hit: doing what it can to prepare, and hoping that it won’t be as bad as the warnings indicate. What’s concerning is that the storm has already started, and there are signs that the defences may be insufficient. Emergency medical services calls in the city are up to 7,000 a day, nearly double than typical. That is equivalent to the number of calls on 11 September 2001, but daily. ‘It’s all a war zone’, a paramedic told the New York Times. Elmhurst Hospital in the borough of Queens has had to transfer patients to other facilities, in order to focus on the coronavirus. Some Covid-19 patients have died in the emergency room, due to a shortage of beds.

Medical professionals are having to make do with limited quantities of PPE – personal protective equipment, like masks and gowns. We have seen photos of doctors and nurses dressed in black plastic trash bags, and wearing bandanas instead of masks. A particular concern is the scarcity of ventilators.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has been leading the state’s efforts to increase medical capacity in anticipation of a surge in infections, and the mobilisation has been impressive. Cuomo rolled out a plan to set up temporary hospitals in the metro area, in conjunction with the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Guard. The first one, a conversion of the Javits Center in Manhattan, was established in just one week. Many people are stepping up to help. Cuomo put out a call around the state for additional healthcare workers, and more than 76,000, many retirees, have volunteered to work in hospitals.

Cuomo, like Democratic and Republican governors around the country, has asked for more federal government assistance and coordination. But help has been slow in coming. States have been competing for the same supplies, bidding up the prices, sometimes within minutes; Cuomo has pleaded for Washington to set up a central buying process. In theory, the US has a potential advantage compared with other countries: it is so large, and the spread of the virus is so uneven, that it should be possible to shift the country’s significant resources to where they were needed most. But that is not happening.

The blame for the failure of central coordination does not lie solely with President Trump. But he has been more of an obstacle to overcome than part of the solution. For weeks, Cuomo and other governors have begged for help with increasing the stockpile of ventilators. And for weeks, Trump denied there was any need for government action to boost supply. As late as last Thursday, he said Cuomo was exaggerating the need for ventilators: ‘I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators.’ The next day, Trump reversed course: invoking the Defense Production Act, he commanded General Motors to produce ventilators, saying: ‘Now it turns out we will have to be producing large numbers.’ That Trump has put his unqualified son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in charge of the medical equipment shortage does not inspire confidence.

Trump has got into petty fights with Cuomo and other governors, claiming that the calls for help are disguised attempts to score political points against him. Of course, there is a political overlay to all of this, but the states do have urgent needs, which his government isn’t adequately responding to. In addition, his rhetoric is out of control. On Sunday, he went as far as to accuse New York medical staff – with no evidence – of stealing supplies, asking ‘Where are the masks going? Are they going out the back door?’ Pathetic.

In New York, people now look to Cuomo more than Trump for leadership. His daily press conferences have become must-see TV (and not just in New York). Here the contrast with Trump is night and day. Unlike Trump, Cuomo appears calm, adult and competent. He has command of the facts and provides full details. He explains the risks and reveals his thought processes — even if you disagree, you at least know why he has chosen the path he has. He expresses gratitude for all of the workers pitching in, and empathises with those who are suffering from the economic and social cost of the shutdown. He can sound therapeutic at times, but it’s not over-the-top. Most of all, he is capable of providing inspiration (see his stirring speech to the National Guard), which is something New Yorkers are yearning for at this time.

It is no surprise, then, that New Yorkers are behind Cuomo: in a recent Siena poll, 87 percent approved of his handling of the outbreak, while a majority (56 percent) disapproved of Trump’s response. Outside New York, Trump’s job approval numbers have seen a small bump upwards, but they are still not that high (for example, 49 per cent approval in a recent Gallup poll). The rave reviews for Cuomo have led some Democrats to daydream about him joining Joe Biden on the presidential ticket, but that seems very unlikely.

NYC will survive the coronavirus pandemic, just as it survived other challenges in the past. The source of the city’s resilience can be found in its people, who give it its dynamism. Just like the first responders who rose to the occasion on 9/11, today we see others on the frontline stepping up: the many doctors, nurses and other health workers, of course, but also the grocers, delivery people and others who keep going to their jobs and keep New York going. ‘Essential’ workers – isn’t that the truth.

In a nice gesture, people in Manhattan open the windows of their apartment buildings and cheer hospital staff as they change shifts at 7pm. What they may not know is that the rest of the country is watching and cheering these heroes on, too. Like on 9/11, we are all saying, ‘I heart New York’.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

Picture by: Getty.

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James Knight

1st April 2020 at 5:03 pm

On the upside if you don’t like living in the epi-centre in New York, you can fly to the UK without any checks while police busy themselves with one person alone in the Peak District.

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Jerry Owen

1st April 2020 at 2:41 pm

Nothing from the author on the sheer stupidity of Pelosi only three weeks ago urging people to go to China town to celebrate cultural diversity.. and now NY is the most infected place in the USA.
By all means attack Trump but c’mon be bit more honest !

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brent mckeon

1st April 2020 at 2:17 pm

“President Trump, shooting from the hip as usual, floated the idea of setting up a cordon around the New York area, before dropping it the next day.” That is what the Chinese did to Wuhan and its province and it seems to have worked. Thus floating is sounding out democratically the idea, however the MSM etc went into fury mode so of course he backed down. In 2/3weeks time when the states abutting NY State catch the virus badly Trump will be slated for not doing the obvious, ie closing down NY.

K Tojo

1st April 2020 at 12:00 pm

In Manhattan people open their windows and cheer hospital staff just as in the UK they engage in mass applause for NHS staff. Is there no end to this outpouring of sentimental spirit of togetherness?

Journalists and broadcasters cheer on this “renewed community spirit” as though society has been transformed overnight into something more caring, sharing and wholesome – the kind of society we are all supposed to yearn for. In the UK “Our NHS” is now more saintly and sacred than ever.

We can turn a blind eye to the bureaucratic ineptitude that has left us hopelessly deficient in virus tests, protective equipment and intensive care beds. Why can Germany, without being blessed by an “Our NHS”, carry out far more tests and save far more lives while the UK authorities are still fiddling about trying to initiate a new testing system which, when it is finally up and running, will be barely adequate?

But hey! Enough of the carping criticism. Who needs problem solving efficiency when you have all that new togetherness to enjoy [but please do make sure you stay at least 2 metres apart – this isn’t a holiday y’know.].

Eric Praline

1st April 2020 at 5:29 pm

It’s now always “our” NHS, not “the” NHS.

Eric Praline

1st April 2020 at 10:47 am

Funny how all the Trump fan boys emerge to claim TDS at the sight of any criticism of their beloved. One wonders what he would have to do to even begin to doubt.

brent mckeon

1st April 2020 at 2:22 pm

Jan and early Feb NY officials were saying that the virus was but a bad flu, plus they were fully prepared (caught on video by Fox) and anyone suggesting banning the parades etc were racist. Pelosi demanded that the New Orleans parade carry on, no racist she?? Now Trump is being blamed for NY problems, which is why we shout TDS.

Eric Praline

1st April 2020 at 5:40 pm

Fair enough, just seems to be a reflex sometimes.

Jim Lawrie

1st April 2020 at 10:28 am

It seemed to me that many state governments sat on their hands and shouted for Donald Trump to make all the calls, planning to point the finger at him for any he got wrong. And now they are doing exactly that. Assisted by Mr Collins on here. No doubt Ms Kaminer will be sharpening her knives.
A request for billions of dollars of medical equipment from one state means all the other states will jump in.
I stopped reading the article once it opened fire on Trump.

Jerry Owen

1st April 2020 at 9:48 am

The usual if not more disguised TDS article.

Peter Anestos

1st April 2020 at 4:41 am

You’re falling into the Trump derangement take on the crisis by elevating the execrable Andrew Cuomo. I live in Queens, a few blocks from Elmhurst Hospital, the epicenter of a worsening crisis, one he had a big hand in causing. You cite him for demanding ventilators from Washington, ignoring it was he who failed to stock up on ventilators back in January when first warned by health officials of the spreading virus. Add to that his ongoing cuts to the state Medicaid program for the poor, which he still insists on, and the result is a near breakdown in hospitals like Elmhurst. Working people are paying the price for the bipartisan neoliberal assault on fundamental social protections, well into its fourth decade, while Congress lards up a $4 trillion debt to pay off their capitalist masters in this grotesque bailout they all voted for. Until we break from the two-party trap, this mafia-style government, from Washington to Albany, NY, will continue. With this screed, you’re only propping them up.

KATHLEEN CARR

1st April 2020 at 11:26 am

Andrew Cuomo is now claiming that his brother , who has the virus, might have infected their elderly mother and is using this as an excuse to further isolate the elderly, who are more likely to die of neglect, as happened recently in Spain, than the virus.

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