Nearly 160,000 identified cases of the new coronavirus in New York State – including 93,000 in New York itself – more than any country in the world – and nearly 8,000 dead: why this state of 20 million inhabitants hit so hard? Did he underestimate the seriousness of the pandemic and delay taking radical action too long?
Questions and answers, 40 days after the appearance of the first case in the American financial capital.
Was New York more vulnerable?
The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has often repeated it: New York, which officially has 8.6 million inhabitants, is a particularly dense megalopolis: more than 10,000 inhabitants per km2. A breeding ground for the spread of infectious diseases. Millions of people use the metro and other public transport every day.
It is also one of the world‘s leading tourist destinations: more than 60 million tourists per year. A virus that appeared abroad therefore has a good chance of spreading there. According to American geneticists, it started to spread in New York in February, from Europe.
A study published in mid-March by the educational blog Clever ranked New York as the city “most vulnerable” to the epidemic in the United States ahead of San Francisco, Washington, Detroit and Miami.
The metropolis is also characterized by strong socio-economic inequalities, situations of overcrowding in certain working-class neighborhoods (Queens, Bronx), where many people already suffer from health problems, without access to care. These districts are today the most affected, with for example an infection rate in the Bronx twice that of Manhattan (1273 people affected per 100,000 inhabitants, against 611 per 100,000 in Manhattan).
“With density, overpopulation, poverty, New York fulfilled all the preconditions to support the hypothesis that it would be hit very hard,” said Irwin Redlener, professor of public health at Columbia University.
Did New York officials underestimate the risk?
On March 2, the day after the first confirmed case in New York and while another case was detected in the northern suburbs of New Rochelle, at a lawyer traveling daily to Manhattan, Governor Cuomo claimed that the city had “the best global health system ”. “We don’t think the situation can be as bad as in other countries,” he added.
After much hesitation, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the closure of public schools, bars and restaurants effective March 16. The governor ordered containment and shutdown of non-essential activities a week later, on March 22.
Did they wait too long? Experts are reluctant to throw stones at them.
“The mayor and the governor were subjected to opposite pressures”, summarizes Irwin Redlener. “Some were pushing to quickly close schools”, “others underlined the economic and social consequences” of such a decision. “The messages were confused. “
Have other states reacted better?
California, the most populous state in the United States, is often cited as an example for its rapid response to the epidemic. The number of cases was around 20,200 Friday, for 50 dead.
“What is notable is that six counties in the San Francisco area got together, as of March 16, to issue a containment order,” followed on March 19 by a containment of the whole of the State, underlines Meghan McGinty, expert in disaster prevention at Johns Hopkins University.
“There was real consistency” as, in the New York region, each county made its decisions without consultation, she said.
Six days passed between the closure of schools and the confinement order in New York, she recalls. “In terms of an epidemic, six days is light years […] and we can perhaps say, a posteriori, that New York waited too long ”.
Whose fault is it ?
The mayor and governor of New York have been deploring for weeks the delay initially taken by the government of Donald Trump in providing tests to states, which are still insufficient today to take the full measure of the epidemic.
As the toll of the disease in New York far exceeds that of the attacks of September 11, 2001, Democratic Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey, neighboring New York State also badly affected, has called for a commission to be set up , after the epidemic, on the model of that created after September 11 to seek the mistakes made.
“There were red flags, what happened? Mr. Cuomo said on Friday. “Without an answer, how can we make sure it doesn’t happen again?” “
Given the number of people affected, and the millions of people unemployed, “we have a moral obligation” to analyze what happened, underlines Meghan McGinty.