Amid the surreal, discombobulating spectacle of the first night of the Democrats’ virtual “convention,” New York governor Andrew Cuomo took a central role as the standard bearer of sober, science-based governance. Speaking sternly, gruffly, but not without care, he told America how New York, under his guidance, faced Covid-19 and beat it. “We climbed the impossible mountain,” he intoned, “and right now we are on the other side.”
Listening to Governor Cuomo, one would think that he had not in fact presided over the nation’s, and perhaps the world’s, most disastrous Covid-19 response. New York State has seen about 34,000 Covid-related deaths, out of a national total of 170,000, which means that New Yorkers have died at a rate close to four times what would be expected based on their proportion of the U.S. population.
Moreover, Cuomo bears considerable responsibility for at least 6,700 deaths of people in care facilities, and possibly many thousands more, because of his health commissioner’s mandate in March that nursing homes admit Covid patients after being discharged from the hospital. It’s widely acknowledged that this order resulted in the wildfire spread of Covid-19 through facilities underequipped to deal with the disease. When the nursing homes begged Albany for masks, Cuomo dismissively remarked that “it’s not our job” to supply private facilities with protective equipment.
Last night, Cuomo explained what he saw as a key lesson of the pandemic: “How vulnerable we are when we are divided and how many lives can be lost when our government is incompetent.” He was referring to leadership in Washington, but the governor could just as easily have been talking about his own governance. It was as if he were daring listeners to accept his projection of his own failures onto his doppelgänger from Queens in the White House.
Keeping his focus on President Trump, Cuomo said that “the European virus infected the Northeast while the White House was still fixated on China.” Cuomo’s attempt to reframe historical reality here, with his usage of “the European virus,” is outrageous: no one disputes that Covid-19 originated in Wuhan, China. He was trying to combat Trump’s supposed xenophobia, and promote his own worldliness, by pointing out that New York City was, apparently, infected via travelers from Europe. But these travelers, of course, were infected by people from China.
Cuomo’s five-minute speech wandered into bizarre philosophizing. “COVID is the symptom, not the illness,” he explained—which must come as cold comfort to the families of 34,000 dead New Yorkers, who thought their loved ones died of an actual infection, not a conceit. “And in many ways, COVID is just a metaphor,” our governor continued. “A virus attacks when the body is weak and when it cannot defend itself.”
One doesn’t have to have read Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor to recognize that Cuomo’s attempt to transform Covid into a political talking point is grotesque. It’s also rhetorically insipid. One might say that the political body is diseased, but it makes no sense to say that an actual disease is wracked by political disunity. He has it backward, of course: if anything, our politics is a metaphor for an illness. When Cuomo condemns the Trump administration for having “tried to politicize” Covid, he is, again, describing exactly his own behavior.
It’s hard to tell whether Cuomo intends such mischaracterizations or whether he has simply convinced himself that they are true. But it is fitting that, in an essentially make-believe convention that convened no one, his virtual appearance took center stage.
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