Category Archives: Politics (theory, History, Now)

Coronavirus (33): Dose #2 and Done—Or Not!

As I reported on 18 March 2021, I received on that date the first of two doses of the Moderna vaccine. As I said at the end of that Notablog post:

I made this decision for my own health, and as a responsible caregiver to my sister [who was vaccinated herself during her recent hospital stay]. True, it is not clear if getting vaccinated will prevent any of us from being asymptomatic carriers of the virus (though one study has suggested that those who took the Moderna vaccine might be able to prevent two-thirds of asymptomatic transmission after a single dose).

The decision is yours. I’ve made mine.

What’s One Dose when It Takes Two To Make a Thing Go Right [YouTube link]? Though on my way out of the facility, I was told “The Department of Health will contact you and we’ll see you in December for your Booster Shot!”

Either way, I’ll let you folks know if I end up flat on my face after this second dose. But for now, all is well in Brooklyn, New York.

My Vaccination Record Card!

Postscript (17 April 2021): So I have survived my second dose. No fever, but have had some chills and body aches, not to mention an arm that feels like somebody took a bat to it. Drinking plenty of fluids, and getting lots of rest. 🙂

With a library from left to right … 🙂

[I was asked offline to prove this was not a bot! I am alive, with a library from left to right behind me… 😉 ]

A Pearls Before Swine Potpourri!

Some recent hilariousPearls Before Swine” installments, courtesy of The New York Daily News and Stephan Pastis:

Sign of the Times (Exhibit A)
Sign of the Times (Exhibit B)
Sign of the Times (Exhibit C)
Sign of the Times (Exhibit D)
Just for Fun!

Holocaust Remembrance Day: The ‘White Coat’ in Art—and Resistance

Today is the internationally recognized date for “Holocaust Remembrance Day.” “Yom HaShoah” is observed in Israel as a day of commemoration for the approximately six million Jews who died as a result of the Nazi’s “Final Solution.” What can be said about this horrifying episode in human history that has not already been said so many times before?

As it turns out there is always some new layer of understanding that emerges with each passing year. Two recent articles that appeared in the New York Times provide us with different portraits to contemplate—in the art of painting and in the act of resistance.

The first, published on 4 April 2021, by Bret Stephens, asks: “Can We Really Picture Auschwitz?” It is a portrait of Auschwitz survivor “Buba Weisz Sajovits and her sister Icu, who arrived in Veracruz in 1946, their eldest sister, Bella, … waiting for them by the dock.” Bella “insisted that they were not to speak of what had happened to them in the war. Life was meant to be lived facing the future, not the past.” Eventually Buba married and “started a beauty salon.” And the family looked forward, never backward. Stephens writes:

Only one reminder of the past could not be erased, because it was etched permanently in ink on the inside of her left forearm: A-11147. What went with that alphanumeric was, as she would title her memoir, Tattooed in My Memory. Decades later, when she was well into her 60s, she decided to take up painting, and soon the past became more vivid.

All the volumes that have been written about this subject throughout the decades, even trips to the sites of the death camps, are unable to bridge the chasm between “what we know and what we understand”… except through the recollections of “personal experience.” We are not talking simply about the thousands upon thousands of testimonials, the documentaries and photographic evidence, or even the diaries of the dead or the autobiographies of the survivors.

In Buba’s paintings, the unfathomable dimensions of this exercise in genocidal mass murder become all too vivid. Stephens writes:

On May 31, 1944, she and Icu (pronounced Itzu), their parents, Bernard and Lotte, and the rest of the Jewish population of Cluj were deported in cattle cars to Auschwitz, a journey of degradation and hunger that lasted five days. Buba, then 18, last saw her parents on the night of their arrival in the camp, when her father jumped out of line to hand his daughters their baccalaureate diplomas.

Buba was given a factory job. It came with extra rations, which she shared with her bunkmates. One day, she was called into a cubicle of the block elder, a female prisoner who was in charge of barracks discipline. The elder tore off Buba’s clothes and shoved her toward a man who had been waiting for her. “I gathered every last ounce of strength that I could muster,” she said, “and ran.”

How can we understand what it’s like to be a half-starved, naked Jewish girl running for her life from an Auschwitz rapist? We can’t. I can’t. But in 2002, Buba painted the scene, and through her painting I could catch a glimpse of what it means to be the most vulnerable person on earth.

“Needless to say,” she added dryly, “I lost my job and my ration.”


Stephens adds: “For all of its scale, the special evil of Auschwitz ultimately lay in the fact that the murder and torture was clinical, something I only really understood after seeing Buba’s painting.” Even animals depicted in some paintings wear white coats, like that of the man who attacked her.

Courtesy of The New York Times (4 April 2021)

Additional, shattering images painted by Buba can be viewed here. As Stephens puts it: “In this month of Holocaust remembrance, it’s worth pausing to consider how one brave woman’s memory, and art, help us to see what we must never forget.”

Another, very different, portrait of the Holocaust emerges from an article that first appeared on 18 March 2021 in the Times—and it was a revelation to me. Judy Batalion’s essay, “The Women of the Jewish Resistance” is a preface to her new book, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos, which provides us with a history of uprisings by over 30,000 Jews led predominantly by women, who fought throughout European forests—and in at least nine cities, from Warsaw to Vilna. Batalion’s research began in London’s British Library, but extended across Poland, Israel, and North America. Batalion opens her essay with this story, which completely inverts the image of the “white coat” found in Buba’s art:

In 1943, Niuta Teitelbaum strolled into a Gestapo apartment on Chmielna Street in central Warsaw and faced three Nazis. A 24-year-old Jewish woman who had studied history at Warsaw University, Niuta was likely now dressed in her characteristic guise as a Polish farm girl with a kerchief tied around her braided blond hair.

She blushed, smiled meekly and then pulled out a gun and shot each one. Two were killed, one wounded. Niuta, however, wasn’t satisfied. She found a physician’s coat, entered the hospital where the injured man was being treated, and killed both the Nazi and the police officer who had been guarding him.

“Little Wanda With the Braids,” as she was nicknamed on every Gestapo most-wanted list, was one of many young Jewish women who, with supreme cunning and daring, fought the Nazis in Poland. And yet, as I discovered over several years of research on these resisters, their stories have largely been overlooked in the broader history of Jewish resistance in World War II.

Batalion’s research has uncovered an interesting episode of such resistance that goes far beyond tales of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. She writes:

Where I had expected mourning and gloom, I found guns, grenades and espionage. This was a Yiddish thriller, telling the stories of Polish-Jewish “ghetto girls” who paid off Gestapo guards, hid revolvers in teddy bears, flirted with Nazis and then killed them. They distributed underground bulletins, flung Molotov cocktails, bombed train lines, organized soup kitchens, and bore the truth about what was happening to the Jews. …

After Hitler’s conquest of Poland, … youth groups formed militias. … Those who were forced to labor in Nazi uniform factories slipped notes into the boots urging soldiers at the front to drop their weapons. They constructed workshops where they experimented with homemade explosives and designed elaborate underground bunkers. “Haganah!” was their rallying cry: Defense! Women who were selected for undercover missions were required to look “good,” or passably “Aryan” or Catholic, with light hair, blue or green eyes, good posture and an assured gait. …

As women, they were well positioned to do this work: Their brothers were circumcised and risked being found out in a “pants drop” test. Before the war, Jewish girls were more likely than Jewish boys to have studied at Polish public schools (many boys attended Jewish schools and yeshivas). They were, over all, more assimilated than Jewish boys and spoke Polish without the Yiddish accent, making them excellent spies.

The individual stories she tells are riveting—and worth your attention. In the end, both of these pieces teach us something profound about the reclamation of the human spirit from the depths of human depravity.

Play Ball!

… oh how I’ve been waiting to say that! And it’s not even an April Fools’ Day joke! And they’ll actually be a few fans in the stands!

The New York Yankees’ Opening Day will start out a little damp this afternoon; the Mets open on the road with the Nationals tonight. As a New Yorker, I’m ecumenical enough to hope that both teams give us something to cheer about. Of course, if both teams are blessed enough to make it to a Subway Series—all bets are off, and the Yankee fan in me will be on full display.

Here’s hoping for a safe, healthy, and exciting baseball season—with the return of the 162-game schedule and a grand postseason!

Postscript: Well that sucked. The Yanks lost and the Mets have been postponed because the Nationals are leading the league in COVID outbreaks! Sheesh…

Coronavirus (32): Junior’s Cheesecake (or Bring On Dose #2!)

This just in from the New York Daily News (27 March 2021), by Larry McShane: “Sweet Offer from Junior’s for COVID Vax“:

Brooklyn’s famously to-die-for Junior’s cheesecake is now something to live for, too.


The quintessentially New York restaurant, beginning this Monday, will offer a free cupcake-sized version of its renowned taste treat to any customer with a COVID-19 vaccination record card.


“What we’re seeing locally, in our Brooklyn restaurant, is a lot of hesitancy to get this vaccine,” said owner Alan Rosen. “And Brooklyn was devastated by this. We’re right down the street from Brooklyn Hospital, so we decided, ‘Why don’t we do something to maybe change somebody’s mind?’”


The Flatbush Ave. eatery opened its doors back in the 1950s, founded by Alan’s grandfather Harry. The third-generation landmark business’ sweet freebies will continue through Memorial Day. The handmade cheesecakes use a special Junior’s recipe of premium cream cheese, heavy cream, eggs and a touch of vanilla atop its signature sponge cake.


“If that can’t convince you, maybe there’s no hope,” joked Rosen, tongue firmly in cheek. “But maybe, if Dr. Fauci can’t convince you, this will put you over the top.”

Indeed, who needs Brooklyn-born Anthony Fauci when you can have Brooklyn-born Junior’s Cheesecake as Incentive. Okay, the cupcake-sized one ain’t the larger Strawberry Cheesecake, but we’ll take it!

Bring on Dose #2, scheduled for April 15th!

Libertarian PBS

I know this is making the rounds, but still, it’s hilarious. H/T to my friend Ryan Neugebauer 🙂

Coronavirus (31): Dose #1 for a “Fake” Virus

Having recently attacked everything from Big Pharma to the medical-science-state-corporate nexus that plagues U.S. healthcare in the thirtieth installment of my Coronavirus series, I nevertheless want to make a few things clear about how I have personally dealt with weighing the risks and benefits of taking any of the three major COVID vaccines currently available in the United States (from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson).

First a few words to the Covidiots among us, who continue to deny the extent, seriousness, or even the very existence of COVID-19. My friend and colleague Roger Bissell addressed this issue first on Facebook (back in October 2020), and in addendums to that in a paper he shared with me (dated December 12, 2020), which I excerpt below. Roger focuses exclusively on the issue of “excess deaths”—for “if they exist,” he writes, “then the disease and its reported death toll are likely real; if not, not.” He continues:

Being an equal opportunity skeptic by nature, I was intrigued by an online claim, supposedly supported with data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), that there are in fact no excess deaths this year, and thus that 2020 will ultimately end up with approximately the same number of deaths from all causes as the most recent preceding years.

As reported by the CDC, the 2016, 2017, and 2018 figures for United States deaths from all causes were, respectively: 2,744,248; 2,813,503; and 2,839,205 (see here, here, and here). CDC figures for 2019 will apparently not be available until at least January 2021; however, hot off the press, as reported by the CDC, is the figure for United States deaths from all causes from February 1 through October 30, 2020: 2,347,341. Since this period is essentially three-fourths of the calendar year 2020, multiplying that number by 1.33 will produce a reasonable projected estimate of total 2020 United States deaths for all causes: 3,121,963.

From this, some simple arithmetic shows that in 2020, there will (likely) be more than 300,000 “excess deaths” compared to 2017. As of October 30, 2020, the number of United States deaths from COVID-19 was 235,158; a reasonable projection (based on an average of 1,000 deaths a day between now and the end of the year) would be about 295,000 deaths for the full year.

To me, this is solid proof (without all the technical bells and whistles from academic statistics) that we are dealing with a real, new disease, not some result of phony, fraudulent manipulation by people trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Whatever this disease really is, and whatever other questionable categorizing and reporting of deaths there may have been, about 300,000 more Americans [will have] … die[d] from all causes [in 2020] than have died from all causes in typical past years, and those deaths will likely be due to COVID-19.

On December 12, 2020, Roger provided additional analysis of the preliminary data (based on this data source):

The 2020 deaths from all causes for February 1 through December 9 is 2,703,232. If COVID is fake and there are no “excess deaths” for 2020, then all we need do is divide 2,703,232 by 313/366 (the ratio of days from Feb. 1 through Dec. 9 to the total days in 2020).

Simple math: 2,703,232 divided by 313/366 = 3,161,675.

So, the projected total deaths for 2020 is 3,161,675. The deaths for all causes for 2018 (above) is 2,839,205.

More simple math: 3,161,675 minus 2,839,205 = 322,470.

Does that look like COVID is fake to you? Something will have caused over 300,000 extra deaths [in 2020]. To paraphrase SNL’s Church Lady: “Could it be … COVID?” [YouTube link]


Now that we’ve gotten that issue out of the way, let me turn to a more personal issue. I’ve detailed throughout this series, the nightmarish extent of the death that I have witnessed in my hometown, New York City. A summary of my thoughts can be found in my last installment. But given my own lifelong health problems, clinically referred to as “comorbidities,” I had to weigh the risks of taking a relatively new vaccine (of whatever variety that is currently on the menu for U.S. citizens) versus the risks of contracting COVID, given those comorbidities. I spoke with all of my doctors, and the overwhelming consensus was: Take the vaccine, because the risks of dying from the vaccine are far lower than the risks of dying from contracting COVID, given my pre-existing conditions.

More than that, whatever problems I have had throughout my life, I am now the primary caregiver to my sister (“Ms. Ski” to all the students whose lives she changed dramatically throughout her nearly forty years as an educator), whom I love dearly, and whom I nearly lost in mid-November 2020 due to a non-COVID-related serious illness. She spent a solid month in the hospital, and after three months at home, returned to the hospital last Monday, due to complicating factors now requiring surgical attention. She undergoes major surgery tomorrow morning. We are hoping for the very best of outcomes.

So, again, this is a very personal decision and I would not for a moment engage in context-dropping (it’s against my dialectical sensibilities) to assume that I could make this decision for any person other than myself. And given my libertarian predilections, I’m not inclined to put a gun to anybody’s head to force them to take any vaccine—or to put a gun to anybody else’s head to force them to open their establishments to those who refuse to take vaccines of any kind, and whose inaction might put others at risk for deadly diseases that have been essentially eradicated (like smallpox).

After a couple of months of trying to get an appointment, I finally lined up one on Tuesday to receive the first dose of the Moderna vaccine late this afternoon. I arrived on time and it took about a half hour to receive the inoculation, sit for observation, and set up the date for my second dose in mid-April.

As yet, I have not sprouted any new ears, limbs, vestigial or highly active new parts of my body above or below my waist. I don’t suspect that the vax was designed to combat any alien virus straight out of “The X-Files“—or to create any alien-human hybrid race.

I made this decision for my own health, and as a responsible caregiver to my sister (who will eventually be vaccinated herself). True, it is not clear if getting vaccinated will prevent any of us from being asymptomatic carriers of the virus (though one study has suggested that those who took the Moderna vaccine might be able to prevent two-thirds of asymptomatic transmission after a single dose).

The decision is yours. I’ve made mine.

#IGotTheShotNYC

Postscript (19 March 2021): My sister’s surgery had to be postponed to Monday, March 22. Watch this space for updates! Thank you to all those who have expressed their love and support.

The Poetry of Rap

As a mobile DJ back in my college days, I learned early on just how to keep the crowd moving by spinning (yes, vinyl records back then!) hip hop and rap hits. Whether it was a party anthem, like the “Good Times“-fueled “Rapper’s Delight” [YouTube links] by The Sugarhill Gang and the Old School street sounds of Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, Kurtis Blow, and Afrika Bambaata (whose cousin was one of my best friends: RIP, dear Ronnie) or, later, Run D-MC and the Beastie Boys, it never failed to pack the floors at a school dance or a senior prom. Over the years, I wrote a few essays about rap (especially its relationship to improvisational art forms like jazz), including one on the controversial Eminem.

So I was very impressed by an article published in the March 7, 2021 issue of The New York Times Style Magazine, “Free Flow” by Adam Bradley, which focused attention on the ways in which rap artists were dismantling the barriers between rap and poetry, especially during “a renewed era of American racial reckoning.” Discussing everything from the nature of sampling, the role of improvisation and the use of literary allusions (going as far back to Homer and Shakespeare), Bradley writes:

[A] line of demarcation persists between rap and poetry, born of outmoded assumptions about both forms: that poetry only exists on the page and rap only lives in the music, that poetry is refined and rap is raw, that poetry is art and rap is entertainment. These opinions are rife with bias — against the young, the poor, the Black and brown, the self-educated, the outspoken and sometimes impolite voices that, across five decades, have carried a local tradition from the South Bronx to nearly every part of the world.


Yet today, a new generation of artists, both rappers and poets, are consciously forging closer kinship between the genres. They draw from a common toolbox of language, use the same social media platforms to reach their audiences and respond to the same economic and political provocations to create public art. In doing so, rappers and the poets who claim affinity with them are resuscitating a body of literary practices mostly neglected in poetry during the 20th century. These ghost appendages of form — repetition, patterned rhythm and, above all, rhyme — thrive in song, especially in rap.

The article is well worth your attention.

Coronavirus (30): “Cuomogate” and Systemic Crisis

Back on 5 May 2020, in the twenty-first installment of my ongoing Coronavirus series, “Lockdowns, Libertarians, and Liberation,” I wrote about the state of the COVID pandemic in New York:

Today, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in New York state are at a staggering 320,000+ and rising; the number of deaths attributed to the virus nears 25,000. And, of these, New York City accounts for nearly 19,000 deaths. New York state has a death rate of 126 per 100,000 people; the city itself has a death rate of 219 per 100,000. Even if some of my libertarian colleagues wish to dismiss 20% of these casualties because they are typically listed under the category of “probable” rather than “confirmed” deaths, that still means that in excess of 20,000 people in my home state are dead from this virus in two months. We need to put this in perspective because I’m tired of hearing how accidents kill more people in a year or how influenza and pneumonia kill more people in a year, and nobody talks about it. In a typical year, like, say, 2017, 7,687 people died in accidents and 4,517 people died from the flu and pneumonia in New York state. COVID-19 has now killed more than the annual total of these two leading causes of death combined in this state in just two months. It is therefore astonishing to me how any person would indict the state’s healthcare system as somehow to blame for the horrific death toll—whatever problems that are inherent in that system—especially when it has been stretched to its limits, and its doctors, nurses, and first responders have worked heroically to treat and save so many lives.

As a postscript to that installment (25 May 2020), I addressed the issue of  how state governors (such as NJ Governor Murphy and NY Governor Cuomo) were being blamed for having “spiked” deaths in their own states by returning recovering COVID-19 elderly patients to the nursing homes from which they came. I stated:

Well, if you listen to the folks at Fox News, Cuomo, Murphy, etc. purposely sent patients, who previously lived in nursing homes and were subsequently hospitalized for and designated as having recovered from COVID-19, back into the nursing homes from which they came. The Fox Folks claim that this was some diabolical plot to kill off the elderly population and/or to inflate the death tallies in NY and NJ, since many of those who were designated as “recovered” were still capable of infecting others.

But yes, aside from the Fox Folks, there are legitimate questions about the wisdom of the policy of sending these patients back to the nursing homes—though it is not at all clear that the infection rate within nursing homes was strictly a result of this policy. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the spike in nursing homes was as much the result of nursing home residents coming into contact with asymptomatic infected staff.

The initial policy was adopted because the hospitals in NY were being overrun and taxed to a catastrophic degree, and when the USS Comfort arrived, and the Javits Convention Center (along with four other centers in the outer boroughs) were set up, they were opened to take in patients who were not sick from Coronavirus; they were to be places where folks facing traumatic medical problems unrelated to the virus could be cared for under “virus-free” conditions. The private and public hospital network were to shoulder the burden of the growing population of sick and dying patients from the virus, while these other places (the Comfort, Javits, etc.) would provide medical care for those not infected with the virus, but in need of urgent medical care (so-called “elective” surgeries were all postponed, but, obviously, there are many other medical problems that people face, for which they require treatment, in medical facilities that are not death traps for those with underlying pre-existing conditions).

Though the official reversal came at the beginning of May, the policy actually started to change at the beginning of April. It was at that time that the Comfort and the Javits Center were finally opened up to care for the overflow of COVID-19 patients. … [I]t was a policy that was shaped by the exponential growths in hospitalizations and intubations that were happening in late March and early April, until the state hit a plateau of 800-1000 deaths per day. Once it became clear that the healthcare network, as taxed as it was, would not collapse, and that these other facilities could take in COVID-19 patients, the practice of sending recovering nursing home patients back into nursing homes started to change. And extra precautions were put into place at the beginning of May.

Clearly, mistakes have been made at every level of government; but it’s a huge leap to characterize something that was a tragic mistake to viewing it as a criminal act. I live in NY; I’ve lost neighbors, a cousin, friends, and even cherished local proprietors, to this horrific disease. There’s a lot of blame to go around; those most at fault, however, were the folks who denied that there was even a virus at work, that the whole thing was a hoax, and that one could just wash it away with a little detergent or by mainlining bleach.

On 16 July 2020, in the twenty-eighth installment of my Coronavirus Series, “Sweden is Not New York,” I pushed back against those who were comparing New York unfavorably to Sweden in its response to the pandemic. I wrote:

Jon Miltimore’s essay “Why Sweden Succeeded in ‘Flattening the Curve’ and New York Failed” is, sadly, an exercise in comparing apples and oranges. From the article:

If flattening the curve was the primary goal of policymakers, Sweden was largely a success. New York, on the other hand, was not, despite widespread closures and strict enforcement of social distancing policies. The reason New York failed and Sweden succeeded probably has relatively little to do with the fact that bars and restaurants were open in Sweden. Or that New York’s schools were closed while Sweden’s were open. As Weiss explains, the difference probably isn’t related to lockdowns at all. It probably has much more to do with the fact that New York failed to protect the most at-risk populations: the elderly and infirm.

The article goes on to discuss the debate between the implications of different public policy responses to the virus. In response, I wrote:

There is absolutely no comparison between the Swedish and NY cases, regardless of the public policies adopted by either government. First, in NY, the share of COVID-related deaths in long-term care facilities was 20% of the total number of deaths (about 6,500 of the total of 32,000+ deaths in the state of NY). That means that the vast majority of deaths did not occur in nursing homes. Moreover, though damage was done early on, by putting recovering COVID patients back into nursing homes, that policy was influenced by the huge surge in cases at a time when not even the Comfort or the Javits Center were open to COVID patients (a policy that changed at the beginning of April). Conditions were evolving swiftly. Moreover, unlike other states that are experiencing a surge now, therapies based on steroids, plasma, Remdesivir, etc. were not in widespread usage. It’s largely on the pile of bodies in NY that current medical advances have been made, sad to say.

Second, studies have shown that, at least in NYC, the highest transmission belt for the virus was its vast subway system, serving 5-6 million people per day prior to the city’s curtailment of “business as usual” in mid-March and most of the communities that were disproportionately affected by the impact of the virus were minority communities, many of whose members continued to work and crowd the subways and buses, becoming infected and bringing that infection back to their families and neighborhoods. There is no similar density in Sweden (the Stockholm Metro typically serves one fifth the number of people compared to the subways in NYC).

Of course, I got push-back from one commentator who claimed, without offering any evidence, that in New York “COVID-19 has killed at least 11,000 to 12,000 nursing-home and assisted-living residents in New York, nearly double what the state admits to. And as the deaths mount, so have the lies and cover-ups. States like New York exclude from their nursing home death tallies those who die in a hospital. Outside of New York, more than half of all deaths from COVID-19 are of residents in long-term care facilities., even if they were originally infected in an assisted living facility.” To which I replied: “Even if I accepted your statistic—which I don’t—it does not explain the other 20,000 deaths that occurred in this state. Or are those lies too?”

Well, recently, an investigation into the nursing home deaths, completed by New York Attorney General Lettia James, concluded that the state had indeed undercounted nursing home deaths.

I was wrong. There were not 6,500 nursing home-related deaths. Nor were there 11,000 to 12,000 deaths as my interlocutor claimed. In fact, the deaths were more than double the original estimate. Current statistics in an ongoing investigation, combining deaths in nursing homes and nursing home patients who died subsequently in hospitals, now place the total at 13,382, perhaps as high as 15,000, which accounts not for 20% but for around 30% of the nearly 47,000 deaths thus far recorded in the state of New York.

Which means, of course, that my central point stands: The vast majority of the deaths in this state were not nursing home-related; something horrible happened here precisely because it happened here first, in the New York metropolitan area—the densest population center in the United States. None of the newest, scandalous revelations alters this fact.

But these revelations do show that Governor Andrew Cuomo did indeed fail the public trust by withholding information and needlessly endangering lives. Cuomo should have acted differently and decisively in being fully transparent. In thinking about “Andrew’s Next Move,” New York Post writer Bob McManus makes an important point:

“A less fearful, more self-confident governor … would have admitted upfront that a fateful, though defensible, error had been made last March. That’s when the state Department of Health ordered nursing homes to accept COVID-infected patients to clear hospitals for an anticipated wave of new patients. That crisis never came, but that doesn’t make the policy evil or even unreasonable, just tragically mistaken. Cuomo should have owned it and moved on.”

I should state for the record that I am not one of those libertarians who believes that every politician is evil by nature of being a politician. Some do believe, honestly, that they have a calling to public service. And I have no doubt that many politicians, acting during the time of a serious public healthcare crisis, were flying blind and doing everything they could, given the ever-evolving conditions that existed, to meet the challenges before them.

But “flying blind” led to tragedies far beyond the deaths of nursing home patients.

This whole affair has revealed far more about the gaping holes in our healthcare system and in the insidious ways that our medical-science-state-corporate nexus works, often to the detriment of the very thing it is ostensibly supposed to protect: human lives.

Ultimately, what might be the worst legacy of the Cuomo administration’s handling of the pandemic is how the machinations of that nexus have become transparent in all their ugliness. As the Daily Poster reports: Cuomo’s political machine raked in “more than $2 million from the Greater New York Hospital Association (GNYHA), its executives and its lobbying firms,” which funneled more than $450,000 to New York legislators in 2020 alone. Moreover, the administration moved to shield “hospital and nursing home executives from legal consequences if their corporate decisions killed people during the pandemic.” This wasn’t merely protecting frontline health workers from lawsuits; it was a deliberate attempt to provide “liability protection to top corporate officials who make staffing and safety decisions.” Today, 27 states have adopted this policy, granting legal immunity to nursing home executives.

And let’s be clear: This is not a Cuomo conspiracy. It is a policy that has been fully embraced by top Republicans, who often decry Cuomo’s “murderous” response to the pandemic. By shielding from civil litigation (forget criminal prosecution!) politically connected hospital and nursing home executives (who heavily fund political campaigns), patients who have been put at serious risk and the next of kin of those who have lost their lives have no legal recourse for compensation, given a broken healthcare system that can’t provide basic health insurance for the vast majority of people in this country. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell has been calling for a national policy guaranteeing such immunity, especially for corporate executives who might be putting their workers at serious risk, as part of any relief package.

So, like everything else: While some public policies may lead to progress in combatting a serious health crisis, they are still filtered through a system that must, by necessity, corrupt.

From the very beginning of this nightmarish pandemic, governments at every level—city, state, and federal institutions—have played a part in this systemic corruption. This is not an exercise in “What-about-ism.” Let us not forget that Former President Donald Trump admitted to Bob Woodward that he wanted to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic so as not to cause a public “panic.” He claimed credit for a vaccine because of “Operation Warp-Speed,” giving billions of dollars to Big Pharma companies to fast-track vaccine development, fully socializing their risks, fully guaranteeing their profits in a public-private “partnership.” Little thought was given to how that vaccine was supposed to be delivered to the vast majority of Americans, stranding millions of people with no ability to even schedule an appointment. People are standing for endless hours in long lines outside stadiums or massive makeshift fields hoping to get vaccinated, and are often turned away. Big Box stores are being subsidized to participate in the massive effort, but serious shortages remain, even as this country reaches half-a-million fatalities from this pandemic.

Even a simple alteration of policy to allow primary care physicians to inoculate their own patients hasn’t been entertained.

I will take whatever vaccine is available to me whenever it becomes available because I’m a guy with plenty of pre-existing medical issues. But that doesn’t mean I have to like the politicized processes that have poisoned this country’s response to a crisis of such horrific magnitude.

Scent and Sensibility

I am way behind in my newspaper and magazine reading, but I came upon an article, “The Forgotten Sense,” which appeared in The New York Times Magazine, by Brooke Jarvis, which was among the most fascinating pieces I’ve read in a long time. The article focuses a lot of attention on the ways in which up to an estimated two-thirds of post-COVID-19 infected patients lose their olfactory senses (and in many instances, their sense of taste, which is intimately connected with the sense of smell). Lacking the sense of smell is hazardous to your health; not being able to detect food poisoning, a burning dinner or a gas leak is, indeed, problematic. “This month,” writes Jarvis, “a Texas family whose members lost their sense of smell to COVID narrowly escaped a house fire after the only uninfected member, a teenager, smelled smoke and woke everyone else up.” Indeed, “Smell is no big deal, until it’s missing.”

Those who have suffered this abnormality struggle “with depression, symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder and feelings of relentless isolation and disconnection from the world around them. It felt, some people said, as if they were living their lives in black and white, or trapped behind a sheet of glass; their sense of normalcy and well-being had disappeared with their olfaction. ‘I feel alien from myself,’ one person wrote. ‘Detached from normality. Lonely in my body. It’s so hard to explain.’ Another described feeling ‘discombobulated—like I don’t exist.’”

Our sense of smell is taken for granted and often dismissed as almost irrelevant to who we are as human beings. So many philosophers and scientists—from Plato and Aristotle to Descartes, Kant, and Darwin—have relegated it to the more “primitive” of our five senses, the “province of lesser animals.” But as Jarvis writes:

“Smell is a startling superpower. You can walk through someone’s front door and instantly know that she recently made popcorn. Drive down the street and somehow sense that the neighbors are barbecuing. Intuit, just as a side effect of breathing a bit of air, that this sweater has been worn but that one hasn’t, that it’s going to start raining soon, that the grass was trimmed a few hours back. If you weren’t used to it, it would seem like witchcraft.”

Jarvis notes that there has been a “renaissance” in “smell science” over the last 30 years. Linda Buck and Richard Axel, awarded the Nobel Prize in 2004, identified “the neural receptors that allow us to perceive and make sense of the smells around us. … The revelation opened the door to a new way of understanding the olfactory system, as well as to a new, ever-expanding world of research. A system assumed to be unsophisticated and insignificant turned out to be quite the opposite. Where vision depends on four kinds of receptors—rods and three types of cones—smell uses about 400 receptors, which are together estimated to be able to detect as many as a trillion smells. The complexity of the system is such that we’re still unable to predict how, or even if, a given chemical will be perceived by our olfactory system. The old quest to map odorants and their perception is now understood to be a wildly complicated undertaking. Joel Mainland, a neuroscientist at the Monell Center who is working on the problem, told me that while maps of color vision are easily presented in two dimensions, an eventual olfactory map might require many more.”

Smell is indeed one of the most remarkable senses we have. From its role in detecting hazards to the transmission of pheromones and its role in human attraction to its crucial role in the functioning of our immune system, olfaction is the most underappreciated and least understood of the ways in which the human organism apprehends the world. As Jarvis explains: “While what we see must pass through various parts of the brain before it reaches our centers for memory or emotion, smell has a nearly direct pathway. ‘They’re built together,’ [neurobiologist Sandeep Robert] Datta said of the brain and the chemical world that it perceives. ‘They’re meant to function as a unit.’”

The sense of smell is the only sensory modality in which the actual airborne molecules of the perceived object enter our bodies, attaching to receptor cells that are themselves neurons.  Our olfactory nerves consist of neurons with one end in direct contact with the external world and the other in direct contact with the brain. It may be the most primal, but it is also the most intimate of our sensory modalities, performing an act of neural intercourse every time we take a whiff.

Science is coming to understand the importance of the olfactory sense in more ways than one. Just as some of the recent research has shown an impaired sense of smell in COVID and post-COVID-infected patients, it is often bound up with neural diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as autoimmune disorders, from MS to rheumatoid arthritis to lupus. It is also experienced to a much higher degree by those suffering from depression. Interestingly, it has been found that “children with autism have different automatic sniff reactions than those who are neurotypical, and they use more parts of their brains to process odors. They can also follow social cues better if they can smell a mother’s odor, even if she isn’t present.”

For me, olfaction has never been a “forgotten sense.” It is something of which I am deeply aware. I cannot imagine a world without a sense of smell. It is such a crucial part of my sensory apparatus that I have never taken it for granted.

It also has a way of transporting me to places buried deep in my memory. That acrid smell of burning plastic, metal, and human flesh that inhabited southern Brooklyn in the days after 9/11 is something I will never forget. But it is not just tragic memories that the sense of smell conjures up. Walking through my neighborhood, picking up the scent of fresh baked bread or a pizza emerging from a hot oven can get my salivary glands going immediately. I cannot forget the scent of a brand-new car or of an infant child—a parent, a friend, a partner. Just the scent of a certain perfume or cologne conjures up immense feelings of a particular person, time, and place that are not triggered in the same way as, say, looking at a photo of that same person, time, and place. One whiff of Aqua Velva conjures up whole memories of my Dad, who passed away in 1972 in ways that a photo or a video image cannot. One whiff of Chanel No. 5 conjures up a flood of memories of my Mom, who passed away in 1995, in ways that a photo or a video image cannot.

A greater understanding of the “forgotten sense” is one of the more welcome scientific by-products to have come out of a tragic pandemic. Let us hope that research continues to unlock not only the mysteries of COVID, but the continuing mysteries of how our organisms function—and why it is so important to recognize when something so crucial to being human is just not functioning the way it should.