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Opinion | What if America Had Learned From New York City?


This isn’t a comeback story — not yet.

This is about how New Yorkers are carrying on after we lost 34,000 of our neighbors and were left to pile our dead in refrigerated trailers. This is about what we have left.

And it’s about how so many around the country have learned so little from our grief.

Early in the pandemic, when New York City was the epicenter of Covid in the United States, large swaths of the country looked on at our suffering but apparently found it impossible to see themselves in us. How many lives could have been saved if they had?

New York City has always been, for some Americans, a punching bag. They mock our (mostly) liberal politics and wonder why we’d want to live in what they imagine to be a dystopian urban wasteland. They call us sinners and tell us to find Republican religion. Every decade or so, they pronounce us dead. Like most haters, they’re obsessed with us.

Eighteen months after the pandemic began in the United States, New York City is a far safer place to be than much of the country. We still have a lot of work to do, but most of our million-plus students are back in school. Nearly 75 percent of adults are fully vaccinated. Our cafes and restaurants, our gyms and movie theaters require vaccination in exchange for the pleasure of being inside. Millions remain masked up on the subways and elsewhere, to protect not only themselves but also perfect strangers.

Electing responsible public officials who believe in science helps, but the driving force behind New York’s determined fight against Covid-19 isn’t Democratic politicians. In fact, mistakes made by the disgraced former governor Andrew Cuomo in the early days of the pandemic most likely cost thousands of lives.

Opinion Conversation
Questions surrounding the Covid-19 vaccine and its rollout.

Instead, it is the people who live here who deserve credit for getting us to this point: the residents who got vaccinated, who ate outside in the dead of winter, who canceled birthday parties and held Zoom weddings and holiday meals.

It is painful to sit in New York, after all we went through, and watch the preventable tragedy unfolding in many parts of the country. Idaho hospitals are being instructed to ration care if needed. In the past two weeks, Alabama has reported more deaths per capita than any other state.

At the same time, we New Yorkers must also do better. Some of our most vulnerable neighbors remain unvaccinated. Just weeks ago, storm water from the remnants of Hurricane Ida killed at least 13 people, mostly in illegal basement apartments, where thousands of working New Yorkers have been forced to live amid our intractable housing crisis. As ever, the poorest people in New York City are paying the highest price when disaster hits. As ever, there are two New Yorks.

There have been moments over the past year and a half when life in New York felt too hard. Some of my friends have moved to suburbs and faraway locales and speak of open skies and lush backyards.

That’s nice, but I’d rather bet on a city where tens of thousands of people filled the streets, masked, last summer to protest the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of the police — for weeks at a time. A place where millions of ambitious, slightly wild people come from every corner of the world chasing dreams and fortunes and refuge and mostly manage to coexist in harmony.

Now fall is bearing down on this anxious, exhausted city, promising more uncertainty in a pandemic that feels endless. The cold, brutally short days are drawing nearer, and before long, the walls of our too-small apartments will grind against the edges of our sanity.

But I worry less and less about New York. We still know how to find our way to one another. We can outlast the winter.

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