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Preparing for the Wrong Emergency


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New York City is facing a major public-health crisis. The spread of Covid-19 threatens to overwhelm the city’s hospitals, as significant numbers of those infected become severely ill, and sustaining their lives depends on access to a limited number of respiratory ventilators. But the city is short of even more basic medical supplies, including such mundane items as protective facemasks. Nurses are reportedly being advised to rinse their masks in order to reuse them, and police officers reportedly lack access to personal protective equipment. Sanitation workers and other vulnerable city employees are also being asked to work unprotected.

These shortages have led Mayor Bill de Blasio to call for help. On March 16, he asked the United States military to rescue New York, saying “we need ventilators, we need masks, face guards, right on down to more mundane things like hand sanitizer.” The next day, on CNN, he said, “The federal government—I’ve used the word mobilization, nationalization . . . has to ensure that the industries that create those vital supplies are at maximum production and then they’re distributed where they’re needed most as we do in wartime.” At a later press conference, de Blasio made a direct appeal to the public. “If you have even a single ventilator that you can get to New York City or if you have a supply . . . If you have surgical masks, if you have N95 masks, if you have face shields, gloves, gowns, anything that could help us, we need it,” he implored.

Since late 2012, when Hurricane Sandy killed dozens of New Yorkers and caused tens of billions of dollars of damage, the city and state of New York have preached preparedness. Agencies, offices, websites, and advertising campaigns advise New Yorkers that their existence is imperiled, and that they are ultimately responsible for the life and safety of themselves and their families. “In the event of a disaster or other emergency, natural or man-made, the resources we frequently depend upon might not be readily available to us,” explains the New York State Citizen Preparedness Corps. “It’s our mission,” says the New York City Emergency Management Commissioner, “to help protect families by encouraging them to think through every possible outcome so they can take the appropriate steps before, during, and after an emergency.”:snip:

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