The disaster of Andrew Cuomo and New York’s pandemic response

If the failures of this pandemic have taught us anything, it’s that when we finally come out of it we need a new normal.

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The global rise of the anti-science ‘populist’ right has received a lot of the blame for the failure of many countries to deal with the challenges of the Covid 19 pandemic. While there’s a great deal of truth in this analysis, from a progressive left perspective, the seeds of the various crises that followed the disease’s spread were sown decades before leaders like Donald Trump came on the scene through a neoliberal economic model championed by politicians from the center left to the far right.

Nonetheless, starting in the spring of last year, the previous U.S. presidential administration, in an obvious effort to avoid any responsibility for what came next, made the work of state governors, especially Democrats, much more difficult than it needed to be by mostly declining to use its ability to pool resources at the federal level to quickly purchase and distribute vital supplies where they were needed.

In contrast, while it’s almost a third larger than the U.S. by population, the European Union used its unified purchasing power to procure supplies of much sought after personal protective equipment (PPE) by mid-March and were soon distributing these essentials widely to EU member states.

As an aside, the UK under the leadership of ‘populist lite’ Prime Minister Boris Johnson was offered a chance to share in this deal multiple times but decided to twist the Brexit knife and go it alone. As a result, the country dealt with PPE shortages after awarding over $24 billion U.S. in contracts to private companies, some of whom just happened to have zero expertise but solid connections to ministers in the country’s Conservative government.

Closer to home for most of those reading this, another example of the crony capitalism so well represented by the UK prime minister offers an even more poignant demonstration of how powerful interests that donate to mainstream politicians are usually protected from repercussions for their actions, even when they allegedly lead to thousands of deaths.

Last March, as New York City became the American epicenter of Covid 19 infection, the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, offered a refreshingly different approach in his daily press briefings from those of then President Trump. On the 17th of that month, while the then U.S. president was talking tough about a ‘war’ on an ‘invisible enemy’, Cuomo was offering a more comforting promise to New Yorkers while cases were multiplying in real time: they could trust their government to rise to the challenge.

“This is an extraordinary time in this nation’s history,” he told an anxious audience as the number of confirmed cases of Covid 19 rose by almost a third in one day, “It will go down in the history books as one of those moments of true crisis and confusion and chaos. Everybody is afraid. Everybody is nervous… What does government do in this moment? It steps up, it performs, it does what it’s supposed to do. It does it better than it’s ever done it before.”

Cuomo’s popularity went through the roof, with some opinion writers even saying the New York governor should replace the by then most likely nominee, Joe Biden, at the top of the Democratic ticket in the upcoming presidential election.

It took a bit of time, but cracks began to appear in the New York governor’s carefully curated pandemic image, reminding those who had followed his career of his reported tendency to bully both critics and those within his governing coalition who dared to oppose his often seemingly donor driven priorities.

In a press release from the New York Department of Health on March 25th that mostly passed under the radar at the time, what would prove to be a deadly policy of returning or admitting people who might have been infected with the novel coronavirus to nursing homes was clearly spelled out, “No resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to the NH (nursing home) solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19. Nhs are prohibited from requiring a hospitalized resident who is determined medically stable to be tested for COVID-19 prior to admission or readmission.”

One reason that the state government might have given for this now obvious mistake was that no scientific consensus had yet been reached on whether the disease was airborne, but, as we will soon see in detail, it appears that the Cuomo administration, in the end, decided to try and cover up what became a tragedy.

By mid-August, just as the sacrifices made by New Yorkers throughout the state in following the advice of public health experts seemed to be bearing fruit, Cuomo, giving himself the lion’s share of the credit for their efforts, signed a deal to write a book about his management of the crisis (reportedly a day after he would have to make an annual income disclosure).

He then proceeded to both write and record the audio version of this work while New Yorkers were still self isolating, getting sick and dying under what he might refer to in other circumstances as, “his watch”.

“It’s not a victory lap, but rather a halftime review,” Cuomo told NPR’s All Things Considered in October while promoting the book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid 19 Pandemic”.

Regardless, the policy of returning sick people to managed care facilities, which created really awful conditions for residents and workers was mostly in the rearview mirror before New York state’s progressive attorney general, Letitia James, released a report at the end of January that showed that deaths in the state’s nursing homes had been undercounted by up to 50%.

This was at least partly done by counting those long term nursing home residents who were transported to hospitals as dying in those facilities, obfuscating the true numbers of those lost in the former settings.

Adding to the feeling that there seemed to be some corruption involved in what is still an evolving (and now widening) scandal, in late March the governor’s 2020-21 state budget included language that freed the managers and executives of private health care companies, including nursing homes, from liability for injuries and deaths that took place in the institutions they were responsible for.

Making a connection seem obvious, critics were quick to point out that a $1 million donation was made by the Greater New York Hospital Association to the governor’s 2018 election campaign when it appeared he might lose the Democratic primary to progressive opponent Cynthia Nixon.

Some of the liability protections in the budget were rolled back in early August but they remain in place for injury and death resulting from the novel coronavirus.

As explained by the New York Attorney General’s report, there were many causes that contributed to the large number of fatalities in nursing homes, including poor sanitation and training practices but it also points to a larger critique, “The current state reimbursement model for nursing homes gives a financial incentive to owners of for-profit nursing homes to transfer funds to related parties (ultimately increasing their own profit) instead of investing in higher levels of staffing and PPE.”

The way that Cuomo and his team presented the blanket immunity they’d provided to these interests when later challenged on it was truly cynical, with the governor’s office claiming that the measure was put in place to protect ‘Good Samaritan’ volunteers who descended on the state to help their fellow citizens during the crisis. The problem with this argument is that liability protections were already extended to these heroic volunteers in a bill passed on March 23rd,.

The scandal engulfing New York’s governor shouldn’t give a pass to politicians and commentators on the right who have reacted to Cuomo’s well deserved troubles with ghoulish glee. The problems in nursing homes were not exclusive to New York or even the United States.

More than 5,000 residents of long term care homes in the Canadian province of Quebec, where this writer lives, were lost for similar reasons, including a policy of returning and admitting sick people to these facilities from hospitals that were better prepared to deal with a highly infectious virus.

Back in the United States, as reported by the Intercept, the numbers of deaths in managed care facilities over slightly less than a year are staggering, “Across the country, 161,000 nursing home and other long-term care residents have died from Covid-19, an astonishing 36 percent of the total coronavirus deaths in the U.S., and there have been over 1.2 million cases in nursing homes, meaning about half of all nursing home residents contracted the virus.”

Although there is quiet desperation on the part of most of us to go back to the pre-pandemic ‘normal’, the left must redouble its efforts to campaign against the neoliberal model and its attendant crony capitalism to avoid tragedies like the one that devastated elder care facilities in so many places and left those most responsible for the carnage free from any consequences. While the far right is always the larger near term threat, the dated machine politics and the economic philosophy represented by centrists like Andrew Cuomo must be opposed because it always sides with the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable and working people.

If the failures of this pandemic have taught us anything, it’s that when we finally come out of it we need a new normal.

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