New York City is facing a major public-health crisis. The spread of Covid-19 threatens to overwhelm the city’s hospitals, as significant numbers of those infected become severely ill, and sustaining their lives depends on access to a limited number of respiratory ventilators. But the city is short of even more basic medical supplies, including such mundane items as protective facemasks. Nurses are reportedly being advised to rinse their masks in order to reuse them, and police officers reportedly lack access to personal protective equipment. Sanitation workers and other vulnerable city employees are also being asked to work unprotected.
These shortages have led Mayor Bill de Blasio to call for help. On March 16, he asked the United States military to rescue New York, saying “we need ventilators, we need masks, face guards, right on down to more mundane things like hand sanitizer.” The next day, on CNN, he said, “The federal government—I’ve used the word mobilization, nationalization . . . has to ensure that the industries that create those vital supplies are at maximum production and then they’re distributed where they’re needed most as we do in wartime.” At a later press conference, de Blasio made a direct appeal to the public. “If you have even a single ventilator that you can get to New York City or if you have a supply . . . If you have surgical masks, if you have N95 masks, if you have face shields, gloves, gowns, anything that could help us, we need it,” he implored.
Since late 2012, when Hurricane Sandy killed dozens of New Yorkers and caused tens of billions of dollars of damage, the city and state of New York have preached preparedness. Agencies, offices, websites, and advertising campaigns advise New Yorkers that their existence is imperiled, and that they are ultimately responsible for the life and safety of themselves and their families. “In the event of a disaster or other emergency, natural or man-made, the resources we frequently depend upon might not be readily available to us,” explains the New York State Citizen Preparedness Corps. “It’s our mission,” says the New York City Emergency Management Commissioner, “to help protect families by encouraging them to think through every possible outcome so they can take the appropriate steps before, during, and after an emergency.”
As part of developing household resiliency and readiness in the event of such crises, the city and state have long advocated that every family assemble a “survival kit” or “go bag,” containing essentials such as bottled water, Mylar blankets, cash in small bills, and first aid. Among recommended items to include are facemasks and hand sanitizer.
Seeing advertisements on the subway alerting New Yorkers that the government may not be there for them in the event of an emergency is a grim but useful warning—but while the city and state were effectively advising citizens to adopt a “prepper” mindset, New York’s leaders weren’t practicing what they preached.
New York is the nation’s largest and richest city, and it’s worth asking why it found itself in such short supply of basic goods, especially after so much time and energy was spent on preparedness and resiliency. The city published multiple studies about the likelihood of an epidemic that could flood emergency rooms and participated in a rolling “Pandemic Accord Continuity Exercise Series” with FEMA from 2013 through 2015. The NYC Health + Hospitals Corporation, the largest public hospital organization in the country, has a dedicated Simulation Center that ran a “SARS Pandemic Response Simulation” at Kings County Hospital in 2019.
Plans aren’t everything, of course. But awareness certainly existed that a Covid-19-like pandemic was possible. Why didn’t the city at least stock up on masks and hand sanitizer, which are cheap—or were cheap, before global demand created a shortage? It isn’t as though Mayor de Blasio is unconcerned about emergencies—he talks obsessively about climate change and its “existential” threat to the city. He has initiated major lawsuits against energy companies, attempted to prohibit glass buildings, banned plastic bags, and plans to extend the shoreline of Manhattan into the East River in order to protect New York City against the possibility of rising ocean levels over the next century.
Yet at the same time, de Blasio—and New York’s governors—closed hospitals and care centers, turning their sites over to well-connected developers, without replacing capacity or building in redundancy. He signed six bulging budgets that increased spending by tens of billions of dollars, and he lavished money on anything that advanced his political agenda or benefitted his allies. But he clearly didn’t allocate enough money to buy the necessary staples of emergency preparedness. Now that disaster has arrived at the city’s door, the mayor is blaming everyone but himself.
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