Earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled the Covid-19 mountain, a three-dimensional foam mound representing the pandemic’s toll on his state. He had used the “mountain” metaphor before and had apparently decided to make it tangible. Referring to the chart of daily new infections statewide, he said that New Yorkers had climbed the “mountain.” Now, with that number declining to seemingly manageable levels, he turned the chart into a monument to the state’s collective achievement.
In a functional democracy with any standard of democratic accountability—a country where elected officials expect to be held responsible for outcomes they could have controlled or influenced—a governor would only have unveiled such a bloody monument if he needed an explanation for his immediate resignation. Cuomo, instead, had the mountain recast as a commemorative poster, which he revealed at a press conference on Monday afternoon.
The “mountain” is a triumphalist materialization of an overwhelming pile of bodies. It is a manifestation of a horrific and avoidable failure. New Yorkers did not set out to climb the mountain; they were led to its peak by their government.
That very much includes our federal government, which clearly signaled by early March that it was neither willing nor able to do what was necessary to contain the pandemic nationwide. Months into the crisis, we still face inexplicable and inexcusable testing delays, evidence that the federal government never addressed its earliest and most catastrophic failure. Here in New York, where Cuomo would have us believe that we have made it to the other side of the mountain, where tests are ostensibly available to anyone who wants one, I would face, according to one of the city’s main swab test sources, a seven-day wait for results, severely limiting the test’s effectiveness as a way of tracking the spread of the virus.
The United States has the highest Covid-19 death toll in the world, and it is rapidly adding a staggering number of new cases every day. These are conditions that would lead to widespread resignations of public health officials in a functionally democratic country. Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown resigned less than a month after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana. So far, most of the people who’ve been forced out of public health jobs since the pandemic began have been those advocating for more forceful and effective government action.
While our federal government’s catastrophic and ongoing failure to prepare for or mitigate the pandemic rightfully earns most of the blame for the explosion of cases, an exclusive focus on the federal response obscures the total extent of our national failure. Our federalist system may deny governors all the resources the federal government can marshal, but it still gives them plenty of power. Most American states have resources small nations can only dream of, and most governors have as much power as the heads of any number of foreign governments. If it was clear by March that the federal government would simply not be containing Covid-19 (and I certainly think it was clear), it was the responsibility of governors like Cuomo to try to contain it themselves.
Instead, for the first few weeks of the crisis, from February, when the state’s first confirmed case was reported, through March 15, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that schools would close, Cuomo did almost nothing useful. Hospital capacity would be increased later; the state would ramp up its own testing later; contact tracing got started—started!—many months later, and only at the discretion of local governments.
In the meantime, for no clear reason, the state Department of Health essentially stopped communicating with the New York City Department of Health. The mayor would dither on closing schools until the governor made it absolutely clear that it was something only he had the power to do. Cuomo would similarly resist issuing a shelter-in-place order because he didn’t like the term. As the virus exploded in jails and prisons, he dragged his feet on clemency for the most vulnerable incarcerated people. In late March, by which point scientists had a decent working knowledge of how and where the virus spreads, a state directive sent tens of thousands of infected people back into nursing homes.
None of that is on the poster Cuomo released Monday, though the poster does include a rendering of the state-branded hand sanitizer he unveiled to great fanfare in early March. (The state, Cuomo announced, would produce “up to 100,000 gallons per week.” In fact, prison workers were simply bottling sanitizer produced elsewhere. The facility would, inevitably, have its own Covid-19 outbreak by mid-April. It would be another month before the Department of Corrections could tell reporters that everyone incarcerated in state facilities would be given masks. This is what New York was spending resources on while other nations were successfully carrying out the sorts of interventions that actually limited coronavirus spread. Including the state hand sanitizer on the poster is a bit like bragging about your state’s early cultivation of the herbs and flowers that ward off plague-spreading miasmas, as other nations were producing and distributing antibiotics.)
If America’s coronavirus crisis ended today, we could safely declare that New York had among the worst responses on the planet, with nearly 400,000 confirmed cases and more deaths than all but four other countries. It is hard to figure out why a governor and mayor who presided over that catastrophe have not been embarrassed into resigning.
It is not remotely the end of the pandemic. Cuomo can at least brag that he eventually got his state’s numbers down to a manageable level, after stumbling through the unmanageable months. Governors across the South and West have no excuse for their own numbers. They reopened without doing any of the things the countries that have successfully contained the coronavirus did. Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis both opened bars while the virus was spreading at rates their meager contract-tracing systems simply couldn’t handle. Now, we are living with the predictable consequences.
And yet, even as the situation spirals out of control, it is still difficult to imagine Abbott or DeSantis resigning. Abbott adopted Cuomo’s strategy of simply going on TV constantly, to act as a comforting and commanding presence during the crisis he is very much responsible for exacerbating. It worked a bit more effectively for Cuomo, but Abbott’s decline in popularity has not exactly been commensurate with his state’s growth of Covid-19 cases: A Dallas Morning News poll has Abbott’s favorability dropping from 61 percent in April all the way down to … 54 percent. His numbers on his handling of the pandemic are a bit worse, as “48% now approve of the way he’s handling the virus, compared with 40% who disapprove.” Texas, meanwhile, has had more confirmed cases of Covid-19 than Iran.
DeSantis’s poll numbers are much worse, and it seems possible both he and Abbott will sink lower still in the estimation of their constituents. But they won’t face voters again until 2022. Is our only recourse to negligence and misfeasance on this staggering scale truly to wait for a chance to vote the bums out?
We have come to expect so little from our government that it will seem perfectly unremarkable if no major heads roll over a disaster for which leaders across the country all bear some direct responsibility. The U.S. may not be entirely exceptional in this—I don’t really expect Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ouster in the United Kingdom—but New Zealand’s public health minister resigned this month, for mistakenly allowing two (two!) British visitors still suffering from Covid-19 to leave quarantine without being tested. (New Zealand has seen 22 deaths from Covid-19, which is fewer than any state in the continental U.S. but Wyoming, which has had 21.)
It may be somewhat unfair to compare larger American states to New Zealand, an island nation with a small population, but our results would still look appalling if we compared any state to nearly any other nation. Estonia and Norway can’t fully close themselves off to their neighbors, and after getting cases down, they are keeping them down with the sort of testing, tracing, and isolating that most countries with functional states have managed to implement. Vietnam, a nation of 95 million people, which shares a long and fairly open border with the country where the outbreak began, had arguably the best response in the world, thanks to its ability to do, quickly and effectively, what American states have mostly done belatedly and half-assedly.
Of course, Vietnam is a one-party state. In democratic South Korea, a new “outbreak” of Covid-19 means 63 new cases throughout the entire country. Massachusetts, which The Week’s Ryan Cooper recently lauded (convincingly) as the “exception to America’s coronavirus failure,” has been averaging 200 new cases a day for weeks. Western media sometimes claims the successful containment of the virus in Asian countries like South Korea is due to their populace’s high trust in government, their conformity, and their willingness to submit to authority. In reality, it has only been three years since South Koreans took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands to overthrow their government for corruption.
If only we could import some of that energy. I don’t think a governor would do something like create Covid Mountain if he thought people might actually hold him responsible for what that mountain represents.
If Donald Trump loses in November, our political system’s last true believers will think that the system worked precisely as it is supposed to: It held him accountable. But this is an ongoing catastrophe of government as a whole. Every day brings a new reason to feel outraged or numbed by the scope of the disaster. We haven’t begun to grapple with the breadth of it. Governors, big-city mayors, public health officials, and congressional leaders should be resigning in disgrace, firing those responsible, groveling for forgiveness, or fleeing town under cover of night.
Instead, they are mainly just waiting for the worst to be over, until the moment they, too, can put out celebratory posters. That the majority of our leaders seem not to be embarrassed or ashamed of their failures—some may not even think of them as failures—raises doubts about whether good governance is even possible in our political system. Americans have, this year, shown a heroic willingness to take to the streets in protest and riot. If they have not yet demanded accountability and consequences for the officials who presided over this unprecedented failure of the state, it might be because hardly anyone has real faith in the ability of their government—at the federal, state, county, or city level—to accomplish anything but policing and jailing people. That isn’t cynicism so much as resignation.
We can elect a new president. Voters in Arizona, Florida, and Texas will get their chance to make their feelings toward their governors heard, eventually. But to elect our way out of the debilitated and rotten political system that caused this outcome could be a project that takes generations, if it is possible at all.
If you believe, fundamentally, in the American system, if you oppose radicalism from either side, you’d better hope that project is possible. Unless and until the people in charge in the U.S. are scared of actually being held responsible for the outcomes of their actions and inaction, they’re going to keep dragging us up mountains and leaving us to die at the peaks.