Staggering to the wire

Like you, I have made it to the last day of a difficult month. Seven hundred and fifty eight of my Hudson County neighbors did not. Unlike more than a hundred thousand fellow Jerseyans, I am not an active case. I may be infected, or I may be virus-free; I may have developed antibodies, I may be defenseless against the next pathogen I encounter. Regardless, I haven’t developed any symptoms. My temperature and respiration are normal. I ought to be grateful.

On the other hand, I’m a nervous wreck reduced to brushing my teeth with a cup of boiled water. I look like I’ve been run over by two trucks and a hay wagon. Six weeks in the epicenter have made me jumpy and anti-social. Even if I wanted to go out tonight, there’s nowhere in town to go. The city is operational, in a way; in another, it’s been put into suspension on the assumption that we’ll be able to revive it later on. When we do, it’s unclear what it’ll be like, or where any of us will fit in.

The liquid coming from our taps remains a marvelous shade of beige. We’re the lucky ones: last night, elsewhere in Jersey City, people had no water at all and couldn’t even wash their hands. Communications from the municipal government were neither clear nor comprehensive. Chances are, they were every bit as blindsided by the main break as we were.

As citizens, we’re asked to evaluate our state and municipal governments on the basis of their foresight and their risk management skills. This morning, proof of their lousy job pours out of our faucets. During a pandemic, there is simply no way that construction should have been allowed to happen in proximity to a water main. Nothing that jeopardizes a vital utility should ever have been okayed. This seems elementary to me. Nevertheless, the state proceeded with this project, and the city didn’t stand in the way. I call this inexcusable carelessness — carelessness that should make us all wonder what other foolish things they’ve gotten up to while the rest of us are staying inside.

Here in New Jersey, we shake our heads at Southern states that refuse to shut down in the face of a public health crisis that requires radical action and brakes on transmission. We won’t admit that we’ve done a similar thing. Our version of negligence looks different from theirs. We’ll encourage the churches to close, which we’re right to do, but we keep on practicing our own state religion: runaway construction. We keep building, and overbuilding, on every available lot, and no matter what we imperil, we can’t stop ourselves. Our state government tells us that the projects that continue are the essential ones, which is just about the slipperiest slope imaginable, since construction has been essential to the tax base and economic life in New Jersey for decades. Elected officials have lacked the political courage to put a halt to this activity, and now, we’re literally bathing in the consequences.

I come out of April with renewed respect for my neighbors and a dimmer view of our local and state authorities. I didn’t think that people would take the pandemic seriously; I thought they’d be partying in spite of the warnings, angling to reopen bars and restaurants, and congregating wherever they could. I was wrong. And in spite of the occasional Confederate flag-waving rally, people all over the country have used their heads, made sacrifices, and treated the crisis with gravity that the moment demands. It’s mainly our elected officials who’ve been behaving irresponsibly — pushing cities and states to return to business prematurely, selectively enforcing shutdowns, compounding messes with more messes, and looking out for themselves. Once this is over, we need to examine the system we’ve put in place to select leaders, and ask ourselves why it reliably returns people to office who are only up to the job when the sun is shining. What we’re working with is no longer worthy of America.