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The Pandemic That Changed Everything Changed Nothing

In a global health crisis, political déjà vu becomes deadlier.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Even as the number of documented cases declines, New York City remains the hot spot of the coronavirus crisis in the United States. It’s also, in the months since the pandemic first took hold here, become a case study in how a government’s response will only ever be as good or as just as the people in charge of organizing it. There is no emergency, it seems, that can knock a certain kind of political figure off whatever ideological autopilot they’ve been running on.  

Last week, The New York Times reported that, based on public arrest data in Brooklyn, of the 40 people arrested by police for social distancing violations, 35 were Black, four were Latinx, and one was white, a pandemic-era iteration of the deeply racist policing that grips the city in normal times. Later that same day, Times metro reporter Ashley Southall reported that, citywide, Black and Latinx residents made up 82 percent of all social distancing summonses issued. This prompted a late-night response from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said, “We HAVE TO do better and we WILL.”

The mayor’s response felt achingly familiar. In the fall of 2019, the New York Police Department began a crackdown on fare evasion in the city’s subway system. Beyond the cruel absurdity of the campaign, as has been the case with the social distancing arrests, the NYPD followed its historical trend of violently imposing itself on Black and Latinx neighborhoods to carry out its new enforcement mandate. In January, Vice reported that high-poverty Black and Latinx communities were being targeted at triple the rate of well-off white and Asian communities. Then as now, the mayor assured the city that resolving the disparity was a top priority. You can go back as far as you’d like to find city leadership offer condemnation after condemnation of racist violence while simultaneously doing nothing to change the racist systems that enable it. In fact, they’re feeding those systems.   

New York is just one example of how this works: A smiling face put on a bad story. You can see similar patterns—opportunistic leadership seizing the moment to justify long-standing ideological projects or more of the same old shitin the White House, where advisers are eyeing Social Security cuts. You can see them in Congress, where, as my colleague Osita Nwanevu wrote in April, “Democratic lawmakers are congenitally inclined toward pragmatism and political conciliation.” And you can see them in Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, who, when confronted with the utter failure that is the nation’s health care system, doubled down on the failed Affordable Care Act and proposed lowering Medicare eligibility by five years. 

We have been told, again and again, this is a moment that has remade life as we know it: how we work, maintain relationships, and exist in public. But look closely, and you see the same patterns, the same political traps, and the same justifications as we had before. It is a fantasy to believe that this pandemic is enough to throw off the weight of institutional inertia and the vested interests of powerful people. Change at that scale doesn’t happen unless it’s forced from below, and that is a long-term project. So until then, we get more of the same, sometimes in different packaging. These last months have been a global event that changed everything and nothing at all. 

Standing alongside de Blasio in a unified effort to change exactly nothing about how New York works—or doesn’t—for millions of people is Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo. The three-term state executive has spent his time presiding over the pandemic the same as he did before it, which is to say talking a big game while negotiating side-deals that disproportionately affect New Yorkers of color and the working and middle classes.

Cuomo’s early response to the pandemic was to hold daily press conferences and reassure the state and nation that money would not be placed before a single human life. The words were nice, and much of the public ate it up. But in his state budget, Cuomo—who has said that in a pandemic “human life is priceless. Period”—still managed to push through long-desired cuts to health care spending (even if they weren’t the full extent of the cuts he wanted) and the power to make additional budget cuts as the crisis rolls on. “The Cuomo cuts are fake austerity, and we’ve been living with this fake austerity for a while,” Queens Senator Jessica Ramos, one of a new slate of young progressives in the state Senate, said in response to the budget. 

These had long been part of Cuomo’s wish list. Last year, wanting to play the scrupulous, responsible moderate, Cuomo publicly called the state’s rising spending on Medicaid a “major problem” and pledged to address the funding shortfall. The crisis, as these things tend to happen, merely provided him another opportunity.

This style of political doublespeak is a uniform sickness among moderate Democrats. The recently unveiled HEROES Act, the next stage in Congress’s attempts at providing pandemic relief, does well to increase the funding levels for tribal governments and frontline health care workers, and it shores up the stressed Medicare and Medicaid programs. But as pointed out in Politico, the push by Representatives Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan to include a paycheck guarantee—in which the federal government would help businesses cover their payrolls to relieve pressure from the state government unemployment offices currently flooded with millions of requests—was stiff-armed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, who felt it was “too costly and complicated.”

For his part, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell has made it crystal clear that, as usual, he’s solely concerned with protecting businesses and the ownership class from the fallout of the pandemic. In Arizona, Republican Governor Doug Ducey has ignored public health recommendations and best practices as he’s rushed his state toward reopening, capping the move off by cutting ties with a group of public health experts whose modeling advised against it. He’s been matched by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, two men willing to absorb the surge of deaths that will accompany reopening measures in order to kick people off their broken unemployment systems and allow some angry constituents to get haircuts.

And as many states demand a balanced budget and have outlawed deficit spending, the forthcoming 2021 budgets are likely to be a ghastly sight absent serious federal relief. Especially for children and teachers who rely on public education. Colorado State Senator Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat, lamented the dim reality in an interview with CPR News, revealing that the legislators may cut nearly a quarter of the existing general fund, with many of the cuts coming from public schools. “We kind of have to cut off some fingers here to save the hand,” Zenzinger said. Public education systems across the country are facing the same dire threat.

That degree of pain will ripple through already vulnerable communities in all kinds of ways. Renters and organizers have been forced to scramble together local, regional, and national responses as state and federal legislators have ignored rent cancellation in the name of mortgage relief. The housing crises that already existed have grown more severe, and the same people who failed to act then are failing to act now. In red and blue states alike, scheduled minimum wage increases, long overdue, have been further delayed. As recently installed work requirements for what should be basic social services have been exposed as the unnecessarily cruel punishments they are, the Trump administration has quietly been telling bosses to snitch on employees who don’t feel safe returning to work. 

This is one form of state violence. Another has been the ways that the pandemic has opened the door for further attacks on communities of color. In late March, the Bureau of Indian Affairs took the land of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe out of trust, a shot at the nation’s centuries-long struggle to establish sovereignty. In South Dakota, Republican Governor Kristi Noem, a Trump acolyte, has used the crisis to pick a fight with the tribal nations in her state, threatening legal action against blockades established by the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, which are attempting to protect their at-risk citizens from the virus. In D.C., four Republican senators asked President Trump last week to halt work visas for immigrant workers, who are ineligible for unemployment benefits and might soon be subject to deportation—this after Trump used an executive order to halt the issuance of green cards in April. And all of this has been stacked atop the violent and deadly policing of Black and Latinx communities for perceived violations of social distancing measures or for simply being home, while white residents in these same states and cities—protesters and parkgoers alike—have been treated with the utmost deference by law enforcement.

We know the way forward. That hasn’t changed, either. Not since the Great Recession has there been a more urgent political moment to enact structural changes this country already desperately needed: universal health care, housing, supplemental universal basic incomes with no strings attached, jobs guarantees, full tribal program funding, an injection of federal dollars into state public education. But the response so far is indicative of a much larger problem facing the nation as it stumbles toward reopening: bad reruns. As much as we’re hearing right now about how the Covid-19 crisis has changed everything, it’s clear that nothing much has changed at all. There is no new de Blasio or Cuomo that emerges from this crisis. There’s no new Chuck Schumer or Mitch McConnell. These are creatures of desperate habit. Wind-up toys that walk into a wall and stay there when confronted with new circumstances. Until they are stripped of that power, this is what they’ll do with it.