As I sit looking out the window of my 6th-floor Manhattan aerie, I half expect to see the bat symbol spotlight panning over Gotham now that Batman and Robin, aka Andrew Cuomo and his sidekick Michael Bloomberg, have joined forces to save the City with their recent call for a coronavirus “tracing army.” And only a few weeks ago, Hizzoner de Blasio had the breathtaking idea to introduce a Stalin-esque plan encouraging New Yorkers to photograph and inform on their neighbors for disobeying virus rules, glossing over the possibility that in this tough and opinionated town such snooping just might result in people being hospitalized—not with Covid-19, but for an emergency procedure to dislodge a cell phone camera from a place where the sun don’t shine. Does he actually live here?
The gist of the tracing initiative is to start with people who have tested positive for the coronavirus and “painstakingly identify” those with whom they have crossed paths to find previously unknown cases. In the (what now seems quaint) pre-AIDS days, if someone went to the doctor for treatment of syphilis or gonorrhea they were instructed to notify sexual partners and urge them to get tested. But with AIDS that could mean locating whatever strangers an addict may have shared needles with in an alley, or gay men identifying sex partners who were too numerous to count and nameless because of anonymous sex in bathhouses and bars. Health officials identified venues more than individuals.
One could say Covid-19 is a promiscuous virus in that it is unrestrained—and easily spread. Unlike AIDS, which requires specific behavior for infected bodily fluids to get into the blood stream, Covid-19 can be transmitted by a sneeze or cough or by touching a hard surface where it might be lurking. And what’s a more anonymity-riddled activity than being in a packed subway car, or a much less packed but still populated supermarket or pharmacy? How does the Dynamic Duo propose to find everyone an infected person might have come in contact with? Perhaps they’ll confiscate footage from security cameras and attempt facial recognition. (Many self-service checkout machines have these already.) Then cross reference the pictures with driver’s license and passport photos, and the locations with times and dates of somebody’s visit? By now hasn’t most everybody crossed paths with multitudes of others?
And what official steps will be taken after someone is “painstakingly identified?” Why not just make the test widely available for people to voluntarily access? We’re not to be trusted in any way?
Even though the origin of this crisis is a virus, a population cannot be reduced to a specimen in a petri dish being observed and handled as if part of a controlled laboratory environment. Ignore that and the agar gets agitated and rebels. Unfortunately, from the outset there have been attempts to use it for private agendas, and it’s not the first time. Former Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s infamous injunction after Hurricane Katrina to “never let a good crisis go to waste” comes to mind; this time around a progressive politician crowed that the stimulus plan was “an opportunity to restructure things in our vision.” Is it any wonder that people in some states are demonstrating against what they perceive as dictatorial lockdown orders whose validity they distrust? I don’t blame them. (But I still think they should wear masks.) And on the other side, it doesn’t help matters for a Republican governor to open his state too broadly simply to carve out a niche for himself with what he may see as a new and spirited electoral class.
Who came up with this tracing plan? Cuomo and—and the most logical choice for a partner, of all the possible people out there, was Bloomberg? Or, no matter what the press release says, was it perhaps in fact Bloomberg’s grand idea? Using his power of persuasion, did he get Cuomo to agree, nominating himself to take charge and sweetening the deal by offering to fund it? Who could refuse an offer like that? This is from an April 30 story in The Hill:
Bloomberg said his philanthropic foundation will develop the system in partnership with Johns Hopkins University, “the best public health school in the world,” as well as the organizations Vital Strategies and Resolve to Save Lives.
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Bloomberg also noted that the program will help develop a broader “playbook” for contact tracing through its efforts, saying “we will release that playbook publicly so cities and states around the country can use it and scan nations around the world. That way the work we do here in New York really can help fight the virus globally.”
Vital Strategies? Resolve to Save Lives? A public “playbook”? What will happen with all the data they collect? Where’s the accountability? Who’s minding the store?