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In a perfectly geometric world, American society would resemble a scalene triangle: the three unequal and opposite vertices are linked to each other by relationships of dependence. Each angle, in its solitude, contracts or expands according to the logic of contiguity. These are the three souls, or rather three consciences, of the American community. They are respectively superb and self-referential; supportive and activist; or rhetorical and brazen. And it is this combination that creates form and order.
Last March journalist Liz Wheeler in her “Tipping Point” on the ultra-republican channel OAN, explained to America why the United States was not like Italy in its response to Covid-19. She offered five points in support of her thesis: “Point number one, Italy has the oldest population in Europe … point number two, Italy has a high percentage of smokers … point number three, Italy has a different problem of transmission (of the virus, Ed.) from the United States, such as the custom of kissing … (then, Ed.) Italy lies on the Silk Roads … Point number four, the Italian national health system is failing, with poor basic health care, so people don’t visit their doctor but go directly to the Emergency Rooms… The Emergency Rooms failed to make the necessary efforts to isolate the infected patients … Obviously here in the United States it’s different, and our emergency service has not collapsed even though we’ve long since passed ten days since the infection… Point number five, Italy is not using the combination of antiviral drugs that has been effectively used in South Korea… just because this combination (of drugs, Ed) is not the “official” one for treating Covid-19.”
The vision of a part of America is all here, in the established state of acquired exceptionality. There is no need to list five, ten or twenty reasons why, today, the United States is the country worst hit by the virus, with its 2 million cases and 110,000 deaths. Yet there is something that has to be emphasised, and it is the stratification of contagion between social classes. Who knows whether the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, was aware of this when in a speech at the start of the epidemic he repeated, as encouragement, “only 5% of us will be affected”.
He sure had got it right. In mid-March, in fact, there was a general flight from the Big Apple to second homes upstate or in Connecticut. Those who were able to, rightly chose to isolate themselves. The inhabitants of the working-class neighbourhoods of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens had no choice but to stay. The percentage envisaged by Cuomo was concentrated in these populous urban areas.
Data of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene show a very high incidence in the above-mentioned areas, mostly among African-Americans, Latinos and immigrants.
The death toll in these boroughs is the highest in the USA.
Contagion is greatest in districts with low per capita GDP. In addition, government data shows the patterns of deaths clearly reflect social divisions based on race and poverty.
These are the numbers of America’s imbalances and individualism, where access to health care, testing and information are notoriously available only if you are a “productive” part of the system. However, these exclusions are the cause of vigorous participatory activism. The theory is that a system that works on monolithic social hierarchies, with minimal state aid, produces the necessary antibodies within the community itself. Many associations have filled the void left by the state by organizing chains of solidarity.
Dozens of non-profit organizations that offer services of all kinds can be found on the mutualaid.nyc website. Vision Urbana Inc. is one of them. Until a few months ago, it only assisted elderly patients. In April, the association organised a free food distribution chain for those who had lost their jobs or lived in precarious conditions on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Whole condominiums applied online. The food comes from the non-profit Food Bank, while the logistics are offered by the investment group Blackstone, which closed its Downtown offices and offered its vans pro tempore to the cause.
On entering New York’s communities, you see gestures of solidarity proliferating. From a food truck offering free tacos, to the “Friendly Fridge” where you can donate food, scattered around the city; there are restaurants offering food specifically for Ramadan in a mostly Pakistani neighbourhood on Coney Island. But above all there are many young volunteers, who represent the authentic and sublime sense of a grassroots society that they themselves are trying to build.
In New York alone, about a million people have lost their jobs and many have chosen to invest their time in volunteering. Janet was fired from the famous bookstore chain Barnes & Nobles, and now has “a lot of free time” to volunteer, just as she would like “them to do the same by me if I were in a desperate situation”.
The New York lockdown was only declared on March 22nd. The city was really scared during the first week. In those days the danger, until then seen only on TV or cell phones, immediately became real. Intensive care camps were set up in Central Park. The military hospital ship USNS Comfort arrived in Brooklyn at the end of the month. Hysteria gradually gave way to resignation, then habit. After the first two weeks, people started going out again. Of course, the restaurants and bars were closed, but people were convinced it was preferable to get sick to giving up their freedom.
The state of New York has no intention of limiting travel and prefers to pass off egoistic libertarianism as a sacred civil right of the individual. After the second week of lockdown, some people are already in the parks or picnicking at weekends. Others play football or volleyball, do yoga on the riverside, or organise small parties with friends on the rooftops of houses. Meanwhile, the number of infected and the death toll keep rising. If we could read the minds of those people, perhaps in the park, on Saturday or Sunday, we would have heard a voice like a collective consciousness repeating “not me”.
This brings us to June: the masks are gradually disappearing from faces and the peril of Coronavirus seems to have passed. More pressing topics have taken hold of the consciousness of New Yorkers. This appears in the way most people speak in the past tense obout something that is still among them.