Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Now, let's begin here.
President George W. Bush: Again, I want to thank you all for-- and Brown, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA director is working 24/7 [unintelligible 00:00:20]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes, that's the voice of President George W. Bush in August 2005. He was praising then FEMA director, Michael Brown, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The unearned praise was frankly, ridiculous, and it would later become soundbite evidence of just how out of touch President Bush was with the realities of his administration's multiple failures following Katrina.
Dozens of levees failed, more than 1,200 people died, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and more than $108 billion in property was destroyed. All while director Brown was sending emails about his tie, declaring himself a fashion god and asking, "Can I just quit now?"
President George W. Bush: Brown, you're doing a heck of a job.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, considering that approval rating for President Bush plummeted to 30% following his mishandling of Katrina, it was a bit surprising to hear President Biden use similar language on Tuesday, following New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's resignation announcement.
President Biden: It was a hell of a job, and both on everything from access to voting to infrastructure to a whole range of things. That's why it's so sad.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Oh, Mr. President, you want to go with Governor Cuomo as doing a heck of a job? Nearly a dozen women have credibly accused Cuomo of sexual harassment. Even before their stories of gripping, groping, and general gubernatorial mistreatment, there was that little matter of Cuomo dragging his feet about New York City COVID-19 shut down.
His decision to slash Medicaid during a pandemic, his lethal policy choices about nursing home residents, and his unconscionable decision to effectively cover up the number of elderly who died as a result of his choices. Mr. President, unless you want to play president W. Bush to Governor Cuomo's Michael Brown act, I'm going to suggest you rethink whether you want to go characterize this guy's performance as--
President George W. Bush: A heck of a job.
Melissa Harris-Perry: With me now to discuss why he called for Governor Cuomo's resignation in March is Dr. Steven Thrasher, a professor at Northwestern University, and author of the forthcoming book, The Viral Underclass: How Racism, Ableism and Capitalism Plague Humans on the Margins. Great to have you back, Steven.
Dr. Steven Thrasher: Thanks so much for having me, Melissa. It's a pleasure to talk with you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I was so pleased to be reminded again that it was back in March when you initially wrote this piece for Scientific American suggesting that actually, the governor was not doing a heck of a job. Can you talk a little bit about what you were zeroing in on in this piece?
Dr. Steven Thrasher: Certainly. There have been two major reports that have been issued by New York State Attorney General Letitia James, the one that people probably heard about last week about sexual harassment, but the first one came out just a few days before I published that piece in Scientific American. That one was about how Governor Cuomo and his staff had covered up the number of people who had been killed in nursing homes in the COVID pandemic.
They'd originally said it had been about 6,500 and Letitia James found out that more than 12,000 had died in nursing homes. They had basically cooked the books to try to make the governor look better, to make it look like he had done a heck of a job. Of course, it was very disturbing to find out the number was about double. Even if you go back to the original number, about 6,500, that was already an unacceptable number of dead.
New York had, along with New Jersey and Michigan, the highest percent of people who had died in nursing homes. One of the reasons that happened in New York State was because the Cuomo administration made the decision to send people who were recovering from the corona virus into nursing homes to recover. This had a predictably disastrous effect. It's one of the reasons why deaths were so high. 47 other states did not make that decision.
They sent people recovering to dedicated wings or to dedicated spaces, but the Cuomo administration decided to send them to nursing homes. The nursing homes were not prepared and nursing homes, of course, are not set up to deal with new viruses or pathogens we don't know about. It was a really disastrous, almost genocidal problem that the governor had created and so that's why I initially thought he should resign.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's presume Governor Cuomo's intention wasn't to end up with 6,500 deaths. What was behind that decision or what executive function failures happened to allow that decision to be implemented, to send those who are recovering from COVID back into nursing home?
Dr. Steven Thrasher: Well, we have to look at the resources that were available at the time, and a lot of those resources were determined by Governor Cuomo's decisions over the decade that he had been governor prior to that. New York State shed about 20,000 hospital beds over the previous 20 years and he was governor for half of that time. His administration personally oversaw the closure of a 500-bed hospital in Brooklyn just a few years before the pandemic, so we are working with a lot less.
If we'd had those hospital beds, we would have had more space that we could send them. Governor Cuomo had also chosen to try to cut Medicaid spending by about a half billion dollars in the pandemic in those early months. We know that that Medicaid is one of the most important tools we have to get money that's not even coming from the state budget, its federal money and it's one of the best tools we have to deal with public health in general, particularly for poor people.
In trying to not receive that money from the federal government, he was acting a lot like Republican governors in the South that a lot of New Yorkers will make fun of, the governors who had refused Medicaid spending. All of that contributed to the fact that when we had this awful pandemic, we did not have the resources that we could have.
Poetically, this began before Governor Cuomo's time, but it contributed to St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City, which had been one of the major hospitals that dealt with the AIDS crisis, that also had closed. Those kinds of closures of hospitals continued under Governor Cuomo. We just didn't have the resources that we needed in that moment and he was eschewing federal help when we should have been welcoming it and wanting more of it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why wouldn't this have been the key to media moment, holding the governor accountable around human life around key executive decisions that are made in the context of a pandemic? Instead, he gets dubbed by media as America's governor.
Dr. Steven Thrasher: This happened for a number of sad reasons that I'm writing about in my forthcoming book. One is that the coronavirus pandemic began to kill people immediately in this country that we already broadly as a society consider disposable and they've already been disappeared from view. Many people who are dying in nursing homes, these are people that are institutionally warehoused, and have been removed from society in the first place.
There's not a great amount of care about them and so when many of them died, that was just considered par for the course. Which of course is very sad and unfortunate. Governor Cuomo also was foiling himself against President Trump. President Trump's no longer in office so that takes away some of the cover he'd had. Of course, the the media very consciously portrayed him as the opposite of Trump and [inaudible 00:08:19] darling.
That happened in no small part because of his brother, Chris Cuomo, who is a host of the CNN show, Cuomo Tonight. I found it really appalling the whole concept of that show and that it was named with the last name of the former governor, and the current governor of New York, and the show was just called Cuomo. I found that always really inappropriate.
Then Chris Cuomo brought his brother on-- we now know that he was advising him later, but he brought him on and really puffed him up.
Governor Cuomo was eventually given an Emmy for those press conferences, and the media was frankly, broadly insufficiently critical at looking at his history of public health over the years, at looking at the ways that he did not keep our hospital beds at the level that they needed to be at. That he has refused to tax billionaires at the level that they should be taxed.
Even in the pandemic, he really fought until he was on the ropes and the state legislature could fight him on this, he really did fight raising taxes on the wealthy, to make sure that we had the resources we needed in the pandemic, and that we would have them to prepare looking forward. It was a failure of media to not look at history, to not look at the economic decisions by the governor over time, and then to also just ignore the fact that these people we broadly considered disposable were being killed.
I took it very personally and I'm writing about this in my book as well because I had a close friend of mine who is a mentor editor of mine at The Village Voice, and he had gone into a hospital for a tooth infection and then he got set to a nursing home to recover where he then got the coronavirus and died. I often think about [inaudible 00:10:04] still be alive if we had had dedicated wings and spaces for people with coronavirus, rather than sending them into nursing homes, into these spaces that we sadly just don't care enough about as a society. That's why I think he got a pass on the first one.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One thing I want to say, just, I want to pause long enough to say I'm so sorry to hear about that loss. I know that for so many of us who took those gut punches early on, and then the horror that some of us are feeling about taking them now, that even after a vaccine, we continue to lose friends and loved ones and community members.
I want to just pause for a moment to acknowledge the humanity of that, because I think your point about nursing homes and the ways that we can remove people from view; the elderly, the poor, it actually does in so many ways resonate with me about Hurricane Katrina and about the ways that precisely those vulnerable populations who folks didn't have to think about or look at, or wonder about until people were on the roofs of their homes. I appreciate you doing the sunlight of disinfectant on this story.
Dr. Steven Thrasher: Thank you. I interviewed for my book, the activist Alice Wong who is a disability activist, and she talked so beautifully about congregate spaces where people can't leave. That includes poor people who are caught in floodwaters, it includes disabled people who are often also institutionalized, and people who are incarcerated. We saw that with Hurricane Katrina.
We saw people who could not leave prisons or were too poor to leave their neighborhoods and were left for dead by the society until we were forced to look at them when this rupture happened. In New York State as well, Governor Cuomo also really refused to be proactive about taking care of people who were incarcerated. He bragged about having them make hand sanitizer because people in prison are legally enslaved and can be forced to do whatever the state makes them do.
He bragged about using them as a workforce, but he was not proactive about putting in measures to protect people in prison, and certainly not proactive about inoculating them early once we got the vaccination so that rates continue to be quite bad in prisons. These are all populations that are quite marginalized. We are forced to look at them to some degree in moments of crisis like the pandemic.
Because they've already been disappeared in a way from day to day life, it becomes easier for them to feel the brunt of things in moments of crisis. In that way, Governor Cuomo was not only negligent, but it was really offensive that he went on this victory lap with his book we now know he got $5 million for and bragged about what a job he was doing.
That's actually seems to be the motivating factor for why they covered up the number of deaths, because he really wanted to look as good as possible for this book deal and not to try to protect the citizens of the state as effectively as he needed to, which should be the first order of business for any governor.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dr. Steven Thrasher is a professor at Northwestern University. Steven, thanks for joining us.
Dr. Steven Thrasher: Thanks so much Melissa.
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