Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, has always embodied a dark irony of the COVID-19 pandemic. While Cuomo’s state has a higher death toll than anywhere else in America and his austerity-driven politics continue to cripple public institutions, he has won hysterical praise from many of the nation’s leading newspapers, magazines, and television shows. People have literally declared themselves “Cuomosexuals” and hawked his merchandise on Etsy. The inexplicable cult of worship, birthed at the height of the pandemic in New York last spring, has managed to linger on through the carnage.
Cuomo’s failure to contain the virus in the earliest weeks of the outbreak doomed New York to far more suffering than it needed to endure. Now, with a vaccine here, he is again proving his lack of fitness to lead New York through the worst crisis it has faced in modern history. For weeks, unused vaccine doses have sat in freezers, with some even being thrown out. After imposing extremely complex and rigid guidelines over who can receive a vaccine, Cuomo threatened health care providers with million-dollar fines if they didn’t follow the rules he had created for who can get a shot first.
While it’s understandable that Cuomo would want to ensure that health care workers and nursing home residents received the vaccine in priority, his determination to wield maximal control over the operation has only slowed the process down. County executives who had been ready to deploy vaccines at local health departments, schools, churches, and firehouses were told that only hospitals could be vaccination sites. No locality could attempt to dole out vaccines faster than Cuomo would allow. If New York City or any town wanted to vaccinate a sick elderly person not in one of Cuomo’s priority groups, they were immediately blocked.
On Friday, under furious pressure from local officials — including Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate, who called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to defy Cuomo altogether and start vaccinating more people — Cuomo relented. He announced an expansion of the eligibility groups to include 3 million more people, including those seventy-five and older. Whereas 5 million New Yorkers received the smallpox vaccine in a two-week period in 1947, Cuomo said that, this time, it would take until April to administer doses to all of the state’s elderly.
There is still time for New York to recover and become a national leader in a mass vaccination campaign, but the clock, tragically, is ticking. In New York City, the coronavirus positivity rate could hit a catastrophic 10 percent soon, after having been kept below 1 percent during parts of the summer. Cuomo wasted weeks bypassing local health departments, sending the initial vaccines directly to hospitals and health clinics while instructing them to vaccinate their employees in a specific order, according to a detailed assessment of risk. Organizations had to assess every employee according to a complex matrix that included job description, the environment in which the employee worked, and age.
Overall, New York is currently neither laggard nor leader in the race to vaccinate its population. According to the CDC, it is on par with some large states like Texas and Florida. But given the scale of death the state has already suffered, Cuomo cannot afford to simply match the pace set by states run by Donald Trump acolytes. Tennessee, West Virginia, Vermont, Maine, and Washington continue to lead New York in vaccinating their residents. Given that no state in the country is doing particularly well, it’s urgent that Cuomo vaccinate enough people to make New York an exemplar. There should come a point, very soon, when anyone who wants a vaccine can line up at a sports arena or convention center to get one.
What makes all this so infuriating is that Cuomo had many months to prepare for what’s happening now. The question was when — not if — a coronavirus vaccine would arrive. After downplaying the threat of the virus in March and ignoring public health experts who called for earlier lockdowns, Cuomo had an opportunity to reflect on his mistakes and ensure a less tragic future. Instead, he published a memoir and boasted about a curve flattened on the backs of the dead.
In that sense, Cuomo and Trump aren’t so different — both seek to rewrite reality to fit self-serving narratives. Cuomo may not resort to incitement to violence like the more egregious Trump, but he harbors the same kind of authoritarian instincts as the more chaotic president. Unlike Trump, Cuomo will survive, a three-term governor who may well glide to his fourth next year. While members of the working class are condemned to live life on the cusp of some precarious precipice—one mistake can mean a lost job, a police record, or a lifetime trapped in incriminating Google searches—the powerful, like Cuomo, are allowed to smash up as much as they like with little consequence. It’s the American way.