It finally happened. Andrew Cuomo resigned as New York’s governor. After a state investigation concluded that he sexually harassed 11 women, Cuomo held out for as long as he could before capitulating. This represents a stark contrast with last year, when Cuomo was acclaimed for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Political reporter Ross Barkan’s new book, The Prince: Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus, and the Fall of New York, argues that the governor’s seeming success was always a fraud: Cuomo’s decisions in the early days of the pandemic caused an enormous number of avoidable deaths, and his further mismanagement forced the most vulnerable New Yorkers to bear the brunt of the disease. The book highlights not only Cuomo’s incompetence but his career-long adherence to the interests of moneyed elites.
As the coronavirus first hit New York, Barkan writes, Cuomo delayed taking necessary actions to stop its spread. Rather than order immediate lockdowns, he downplayed risks, repeatedly arguing that the disease would be less destructive than the common flu. By the time he issued a stay-at-home order, on March 20, there were thousands of new cases every day in New York City alone. Had Cuomo acted a week earlier, he would have saved nearly 17,000 lives.
But Cuomo not only initially underestimated the pandemics severity. Some of The Princes most disturbing passages show that, as the crisis wore on, he allowed nursing home residents and healthcare workers to suffer immensely. Elderly coronavirus patients did not receive the care they needed, while frontline workers, denied appropriate protective equipment, struggled to manage rising caseloads. When the dust cleared there were more than 15,000 deaths in nursing homes.
The most effective aspect of Barkan’s book is its focus on the historical and political-economic roots of the tragedy. Problems with hospital capacity, for example, are traced back to a reduction in state hospital beds, from about 74,000 in 2000 to about 53,000 last year. These unnecessary austerity measures were bipartisan, carried out by Republican governor George Pataki and Cuomo. They went hand in hand with Cuomo’s use of the state to promote private profit, as when he worked with lobbyists to shield hospitals and nursing homes from legal liability during the pandemic. At the same time, the governor resisted funding relief for tenants and preferred gutting state services over raising taxes on the rich; only a progressive state legislature, including six DSA members, could force him to act in the interests of working people.
In his self-serving pandemic memoir, Cuomo presents himself as having great foresight about the damage the virus would cause. To the contrary, in what became a major scandal, the administration publicly undercounted nursing home deaths. Cuomos PR offensive distorted the reality: his response to the pandemic served the wealthy but harmed ordinary people.
His willingness to designate as expendable certain groups such as elderly nursing home patients and underpaid care workers typifies the damage wrought by neoliberal governance. We should be glad to have reporting, like Barkan’s, that brings it to light.