Report From New York: State Policy Under Governor Cuomo Puts Hundreds of Thousands of New Yorkers at Risk
In the final weeks of March, as New York City became the epicenter of the global Coronavirus pandemic, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo emerged as a key figure in the national “war” against the Coronavirus. He has called for vigilant state preparation based on “science and data”, including mandatory state-wide shutdowns and social distancing to flatten the curve of transmission; federal aid to increase the number of hospital beds and ventilators, and a 90-day moratorium on evictions during a period in which unemployment applications in NY State surged 500%.
These aggressive measures, announced in a series of daily press briefings carried on all the major television networks, have made the governor a star of the moment. But even while lambasting President Trump’s faltering interventions and shortsighted policy, Cuomo is overseeing policy which puts hundreds of thousands of New Yorker’s lives at risk. By pursuing a budget plan which slashes medicaid funding to public hospitals; denying early release to ill and elderly residents in New York State prisons; and directing tens of millions of dollars towards arresting homeless people in New York City, the governor has created the conditions for a perfect storm in which many thousands of the most vulnerable New Yorkers will likely die.
Coronavirus patients in New York are already beginning to tax hospital capacity. As of April 2nd, there were 13,000 hospitalizations in New York, with the numbers rising rapidly. Hospitals are becoming overrun with sick patients, and medical staff lack basic medical supplies such as N95 respirator masks. Two nurses at city hospitals have already died. As the virus tears through New York, Gov. Cuomo has begun hosting his press briefings from the Javits Center in Manhattan, the site of a temporary hospital with 2,500 beds.
Meanwhile, a right-wing evangelical group is building a tent-hospital and morgue in Central Park, and a 1,000 bed naval hospital has docked on the westside of Manhattan. By ramping up efforts to add hospital beds, hire more medical workers and stockpile ventilators and PPE (“personal protective equipment”) for the upcoming virus “apex”, Gov. Cuomo has correctly taken important steps to address the immensity of the immediate crisis in New York. But the current shortage of hospital capacity is a crisis at least partially of his own making, and despite efforts to increase temporary facilities, community hospitals are still being stripped by his latest budget proposal.
New York state has lost 20,000 hospital beds as a result of the closure of public hospitals as well as corporate consolidation. Beneficiaries of hospital consolidation, such as Northwell Health, the largest medical network in New York, are Cuomo’s primary partners in the Coronavirus mobilization plan. Michael Dowling. Northwell’s CEO, is featured at the governor’s press conferences, and has been tasked with expanding temporary capacity at existing medical centers.
Since 2011, Gov. Cuomo has pushed to cut medicaid reimbursements, jeopardizing health care facilities serving low income patients, and since 2018 he has maneuvered to hand over some of these struggling hospitals in Brooklyn to Northwell Health, which prioritizes high-margin sub-specialists over general inpatient medicine. Northwell is likely to acquire and restructure several more city hospitals in the near future, as Cuomo is pursuing another $400 million cut in funding to ‘safety net’ hospitals serving lower income, undocumented, and uninsured New Yorkers. He proposed this as part of his Medicaid Redesign Plan released on March 19th, during the midst of epidemic, mostly approved in a rushed and barely-attended legislative session on April 1st., which cuts $2 billion in state Medicaid funding. Hospitals affected would include Elmhurst hospital in Queens, which is now the site of New York’s largest Coronavirus morgue.
While hospitals in New York are reeling from the rapid spread of coronavirus, a humanitarian catastrophe is all but certain in New York State prisons which house 80,000 people in cramped conditions, with limited access to soap and water, and insufficient medical care. Cuomo has agreed to release only 1,100 people from prisons, an amount which will do little to alleviate the imminent crisis. Growing demands for large scale prisoner release in New York point to common-sense release programs of governments around the country and around the world. Instead, Cuomo has forced prisoners to make hand sanitizer and has relied on solitary confinement to isolate those testing positive for Coronavirus. While Cuomo’s clemency powers allow him to immediately release prisoners, including older prisoners and prisoners who have served the majority of their sentences, he has instead doubled down on maintaining the prison population, including moving to push a rollback on bail reform recently passed in New York.
Governor Cuomo’s budget cuts to medicaid in NYC have coincided with defunding housing aid and homeless services in New York City, furthering a crisis which now threatens thousands of people in overcrowded shelters. In 2011, Cuomo began slashing state funding for rental assistance programs, causing the population in New York City shelters to increase by 16,000 in one year. The pattern has continued since then, so that there are now an estimated 78,000 homeless people in New York City.
State funding for shelters has been cut as well, leading to overcrowding and unsafe conditions in shelters and ‘drop-in centers’ where the Coronavirus is predicted to spread like wildfire, such as at a city-run shelter in the Bronx where 45 families share one microwave. As shelters become petri dishes for the spread of Coronavirus, homeless people seeking refuge in subways continue to be forced into them through the Subway Diversion Program, at the risk of arrest. (The program emphasizes “quality of life” offenses on the subways, such as lying across seats. Offenders are given an ultimatum; shelters or jail).
In 2019, while instituting steep cuts in medicaid and homeless services under an austerity budget, Cuomo pushed for 500 new MTA police, at a cost of $50 million, to accelerate the crackdown on homelessness and fare evasion in the subways. As of Monday, 100 people tested positive for Coronavirus at city shelters, and more are dying each day.
As Governor Cuomo, newly dubbed as “America’s Governor”, dominates the airwaves and is lavished with praise from all corners of the media, a humanitarian crisis is emerging which has been a long time in the making. But in his daily briefings the Governor has asserted that response to the pandemic must transcend political context and deal with the situation right now: “No politics, no partisanship.” His primary task force members have reinforced the message that a nice spoonful of amnesia will help the medicine go down. Brian Conway, of the Greater New York Hospital Association, said “Focusing on closed and consolidated hospitals does nothing to help the task at hand. All that matters is rising to the current challenge”.
The media, in turn, has embraced Cuomo as a war-time leader, internalizing the message that what happened yesterday is no longer relevant in a rapidly developing situation. Given that this includes political brinksmanship with New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio that confused and delayed shelter in place plans for NYC; the stripping of health care systems in New York; the squeezing of the poor, and the criminalization of homelessness, this argument is a pretty flimsy one. But as Cuomo presides over his daily pulpit making declarations about the universality of the experience of the pandemic (“there are no red states and there are no blue states; it’s red white and blue”), he is all the while sentencing large numbers of poor, homeless, and imprisoned people to death, and pushing millions of others closer to homelessness and immediate financial crisis by refusing to provide rent relief.
As the virus spreads, the dynamics of the situation in New York will be apparent throughout the U.S. Although individual city and state policies may lean towards relatively more or less hospital capacity, homeless services, and preparation in prisons, it is clear that everywhere the pandemic will inflict outsize damage on those who are poor, and that opportunistic politicians and their corporate partners will use the situation to further their position and their profit.
For New York Gov. Cuomo, this is a long-sought after opportunity to muscle himself onto the national stage. For his task-force partners in the health and real estate industries, it’s a moment to cash in on federal aid by selling services and space. As the pandemic spreads in the coming weeks, it is necessary for people to resist the soothing platitudes of these mouthpieces. We must work together to meet basic needs which the state, through its agencies and private partners, will not provide. And we must unite in opposition to displacement and imprisonment, which now more than ever are a death sentence for the poor.