When COVID-19 was first declared a global pandemic, the U.S. didn’t exactly have a national leader. We had Donald Trump, who wondered aloud if ingesting disinfectants could kill the virus. We had Mike Pence, an anti-science vice president put in charge of the White House’s COVID response team only to remain relatively absent in his final months in office. The bar was so low that, when New York became the epicenter of the virus, Gov. Andrew Cuomo quickly and easily emerged as the anti-Trump: the hero, the so-called coronavirus savior. He held daily press briefings, actually listened to experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci. He wore a mask, and instructed others to do so. He outlined safe practices. Essentially, he appeared composed, capable — and most importantly — honest.
But Cuomo’s integrity and leadership have been increasingly called into question since the pandemic began, with revelations showing how many around the U.S. were simply blind to the truth. In January, New York Attorney General Letitia James published a 76-page document alleging that Cuomo had underreported the state’s number of nursing home fatalities. The Health Department swiftly corroborated her claims, reporting that Cuomo had not counted over 3,800 deaths among the nursing home death toll. Weeks later, in remarks first published by the New York Post, Cuomo’s top aide Melissa DeRosa reportedly told lawmakers that his administration “froze” when presented with a legislative request for the nursing home death toll, afraid that the real numbers would be “used against us” by the Trump administration.
Cuomo somewhat acknowledged the error on Monday. “The void we created by not providing information was filled by skepticism and cynicism and conspiracy theories which furthered confusion... you don't provide the information, something will provide the information,” the governor said. “Most of all, the void we created allowed disinformation.” However, he maintained that the numbers were “always fully, publicly, and accurately reported.”
According to James’ allegations, the state’s death toll was accurate, but Cuomo had not counted residents who died in hospitals among New York’s steep number of nursing home deaths. The misstep carries significant weight, since these facilities were unprepared for New York’s second wave. (An October report indicates that nursing homes remain understaffed, despite efforts to subvert another spike in COVID cases, and Cuomo's efforts to ramp up testing.) And Cuomo was largely to blame for the already-high numbers of nursing home deaths: last year, he signed a controversial executive order to send thousands of residents with COVID-19 back to nursing homes instead of hospitals. The order was later reversed.
The order was signed and reversed back in March, at a time when Cuomo was still revered nationwide. People were jokingly calling themselves “Cuomosexuals,” and his immense popularity granted him fame, awards, and a book deal. New York was steadily creeping towards a second wave when Cuomo’s book — titled American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic — was published. (He was also criticized for failing to mention the state’s many missteps in his retelling, like letting people incarcerated in New York prisons die, and then refusing to roll out the vaccinate to places like Rikers where mass amounts of people continue to get COVID.)
In recent weeks, Democrats have slammed and distanced themselves from Cuomo, and pushed for accountability and the removal of the emergency powers he was granted at the start of the pandemic. Republicans have been livid, and called for Cuomo’s impeachment. But Republican and Democratic governors alike are failing their states in similar ways, pointing at a widespread, bipartisan problem.
South Dakota’s Kristi Noem, for example, put in place almost no restrictions or safety measures, and by December, the state had the highest number of COVID deaths per capita. And, like Cuomo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been accused of refusing to release numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, particularly at nursing homes and schools. In September, he pushed school districts not to report data about cases among students, causing districts to take matters into their own hands. “This is just another political maneuver to make the situation seem better than it is,” Pamela Marsh, President of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, told Politico. “Transparency is the only way our leaders will survive this with any trust from the public at all.”
Governors have also failed to implement successful vaccine distribution plans. Cuomo created his own plan and ignored advice from New York health officials, causing many to quit. Massachusetts, despite being a blue state, has also had a shockingly dismal vaccine roll-out, largely due to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. Currently, the state ranks at the bottom of nearly every vaccine distribution ranking, and on Friday, the state’s Senators and Representatives signed a letter to Baker asking for a better plan.
“A disjointed and cumbersome sign-up process has left seniors confused and unable to access desperately needed vaccine appointments,” wrote Massachusetts’ delegation. “The disproportionate reliance on mass vaccination sites has left appointments unfilled and large portions of our most vulnerable populations unserved.” Many governors have spoken up about problems with their state’s vaccine rollouts, blaming the federal government for creating confusion.
But perhaps the only other governor to reach Cuomo’s initial level of success (and later infamy) was California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who had a fast fall from grace. In the first month of the pandemic, his approval rating jumped from 42% to 83%, with many Americans praising him for implementing the first statewide shutdown. But he failed to enforce certain orders and take action against counties that disregarded his actions “Unless there’s clear consequences for our health orders, people will continue to ignore them. Both businesses and individuals,” State Senator Steve Glazer told the Sacramento Bee.
Newsom has also been criticized for his murky school reopening plan and abruptly lifting the state’s stay-at-home order in January. The order came just weeks after cases reached unprecedented numbers, peaking at nearly 46,000. Currently, Californians are trying to oust him: as of this week, 1.5 million people have signed on to recall Newsom and prompt a special election in March.
In more ways than one, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored America’s massive and myriad leadership problems. There’s been muddled communication between federal, local, and state governments; recently, President Joe Biden fumbled the U.S.’s early vaccine rollout. But mostly, under our last administration’s gross neglect, governors became foils to Trump. Polls showed that almost every governor’s approval rating rose in April, with Cuomo and Newsom’s numbers nearly doubling. Cuomo and Baker were both granted leadership awards. Cuomo even earned an Emmy.
In truth, the governors of the U.S. are nothing more than a vessel by which our greater leadership has failed us over the course of the year. In the hands of our local elected officials, the pandemic grew worse — America became a laughing stock to other countries, especially when the governor of the most infected state in the world was writing a book about his success, and entertaining ideas about joining higher ranks in the U.S. administration. But vague platitudes, fame, and bestselling books aren’t going to save us — and neither are our governors. They aren't heroes. They are still — and always will be — just politicians.