Dear Gov. Cuomo: COVID-19 is not the “Great Equalizer”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo inside a nearly completed makeshift hospital at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York, March 27, 2020. Cuomo's daily briefings have made his popularity ratings soar. What people forget is that for years he has supported reductions in funding to the state's hospitals. After his brother, the CNN newscaster, fell ill he called the disease "the Great Equalizer." Unlike his brother, most Americans have no access to COVID 19 testing and the disease hits the poor, minorities, and those who must work the hardest while wealthy CEOs ride things out from the safety of their comfortable homes. | Darren McGee / Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo via AP

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has recently been praised by U.S. media as one of the few commendable examples of leadership during the COVID-19 crisis. Vogue Magazine dubbed him “America’s governor,” while Forbes called him a “leader with soul.” His approval rating within New York has shot up to a staggering 87%, while, nationally, 45% of Americans have a favorable view of the governor.

But to me, someone who’s spent his entire life in this state, Cuomo’s sudden surge in popularity is far from well-deserved.

Cuomo does not lack in charisma; his banter with his younger brother, CNN correspondent Chris Cuomo, has gone viral and endeared the pair to many. When Chris Cuomo was diagnosed with COVID-19 last week, the governor expressed his heartfelt sorrow on social media, proclaiming to his followers that this disease was “the great equalizer.”

The great what?

Who, exactly, has been forced to bear the brunt of this pandemic? How have upper-class individuals—Chris Cuomo being one of many—gained access to testing kits so easily while millions of working-class people have been left to flounder and self-diagnose?

While workers are scrambling to pay for even the most basic of necessities amid layoffs, the rich are hoarding face masks, ventilators, and other crucial medical gear. While countless Americans are forced to use up their savings—if they are lucky enough to have any—to survive, the rich are receiving trillions of dollars in relief from the federal government. And, while mistreated workers are being flung onto the front lines of the pandemic for less than a living wage, the rich are quarantining themselves in mansions and high-rises, worrying little about access to even the scarcest of goods.

The truth is that, far from being a “great equalizer,” COVID-19 has actually shown just how deeply divided our capitalist society is between the haves and the have-nots.

Gov. Cuomo is one of the many political actors whose decisions have not helped the have-nots. Despite the sudden media-induced amnesia, he played a significant role in helping create today’s crisis. Before the onset of the pandemic, he was actively working against progressive policies like Medicare for All and even attempting to decrease funding for New York’s already strained medical system.

Sean Petty, a nurse working at a Bronx public hospital and an active union member, told The Nation that “Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly stated, over and over again, that New York has excess capacity of hospital beds, that it’s too expensive and not needed, and we need to reduce spending,” pointing out that “if this budget goes through in April, next year’s health and hospitals budget is going to be devastating.”

This war against New York’s healthcare system has made the response to the crisis significantly more difficult. Despite the thousands of lives already claimed by COVID-19 in New York, the governor’s plan to gut funding for hospitals shows no signs of being stopped. Cuomo’s concern is not for maintaining public health, but for maintaining his political career.

Far from anything worth celebrating, his response is actively worsening the impact of the crisis on poor and marginalized New York communities. Tenants, who comprise over half of New York’s households, have only been offered the bare minimum of an eviction moratorium. In sharp contrast, Cuomo has granted property owners a mortgage freeze, creating a situation where landlords are free from paying their mortgages while tenants are forced to keep paying rent. If they are unable to, they face the threat of mass evictions once the crisis is over.

“We need rent relief—in the form of canceled rent, for the duration of the crisis—now,” argues Cea Weaver, a campaign coordinator for New York-based tenants’ organization Housing Justice for All to Gothamist, “Cuomo can do this by executive order, and he must.”

For those still working, Cuomo has not offered hazard pay or job security. These workers place themselves and their families at risk in order to keep society running. In exchange for their sacrifice, workers, like those who operate warehouses for Amazon, have been punished for striking and demanding fair pay for the labor they perform.

Rather than tax the wealth of New York’s upper class, or repurpose factories to produce goods in shortage, Cuomo has chosen to shift the burden of this crisis onto the state’s prison population. Incarcerated people are forced to produce hundreds of thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer, none of which they can use themselves due to draconian prison regulations. The prisoners are being offered a measly 16 cents an hour.

Prisons are often overcrowded, usually unclean, and never managed with the interest of the incarcerated in mind. They are petri dishes for the spread of COVID-19. Justine Olderman, executive director of the Bronx Defenders, described in a conversation with The Intercept the unsafe situation at Rikers Island: “There are broken sinks, there’s no hand sanitizer, people don’t have access to soap, and at a time when we’re all being asked to do social distancing, you have an environment where people are sleeping 100 to a room.”

If Cuomo wants to effectively respond to the disease with human lives as his primary concern, he should not be forcing prisoners to work in inhumane conditions, but instead, he should release them from incarceration. A recent Communist Party USA statement demanded:

“Decarceration of those convicted of low-level drug possession and non-violent offenders. Amnesty for elderly non-violent prisoners. Extra protections for remaining incarcerated and prison staff from high risks associated with prisons.”

This is a necessary step for the basic health of incarcerated people and society at large. States like California have already released over 3,000 inmates, while countries like Iran have released over 50,000. Every second that Cuomo delays implementing this measure exacerbates the situation to the detriment of human lives.

New York, the hardest hit state in the country, has looked to Cuomo’s daily briefings on the disease as a source of comfort and reassurance that the situation is being handled effectively. Compared side by side with the incompetence of the Trump administration, it is no surprise that Cuomo’s lead is capturing the hearts and minds of many.

But if Cuomo wants to effectively respond to the crisis, he must act in the interests not of the wealthy, but of the working class. For those who keep society afloat, who place their lives on the line, and who stand to lose the most during this crisis, COVID-19 is far from the “great equalizer.” Instead, it is just a reminder that capitalist society is one where, no matter the cost, the wealthy will always be privileged at the expense of everyone else.


Prasanna Shah
Prasanna Shah

Prasanna Shah is a student and writer based in New York City.