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Was New York’s COVID-19 Response More Destructive Than NYC’s Historic Fires?

New York, fires, Covid 19

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By Lawrence W. Reed and Jon Miltimore

This week marks the 185th anniversary of one of the worst fires in New York City’s history, which prompts us to pose this question: Which has caused more destruction to life and property—fire or government?

Some big fires exacted enormous tolls in the past, but so did some big governments. Hang on, because eventually we plan to bring this back around to New York.

While Emperor Nero famously fiddled and then falsely fingered Christians as the culprits, two-thirds of the city of Rome went up in smoke in 64 A.D. Evidence and testimony suggest Nero himself may have started the fire, in which case we’d have to chalk up the destruction as much to government as to fire.

London’s Great Fire of 1666 obliterated nearly a hundred churches, every city government building, and the homes of a staggering 7/8 of the city’s population, though the death toll was astonishingly minimal. Officially, just six people died but the actual toll was probably at least in the hundreds.

Over a three-hour period during the night of December 29, 1940, German bombers dropped nearly 125,000 bombs on the British capital. The resulting firestorm is known as the “Second Great Fire of London.” Deaths numbered in the hundreds (not thousands) and 19 churches were among the buildings lost.

Chicago’s legendary fire of 1871, possibly started by Mrs. O’Leary’s careless cow, destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars in property and killed some 300 people.

Wildfires in fields and wooded areas set tens of millions of acres ablaze in only the last century, just as they had been doing for all recorded history.

It is impossible to know the total deaths and damage that fire has wrought over the centuries. However, we can be somewhat less ambiguous in estimating destruction at the hands of governments.

The Black Book of Communism revealed in 1997 that communist regimes alone in the 20th century murdered (or caused the murder of) about 100 million people. Hitler’s national socialism killed six million Jews and an even greater number of people generally if you hold it accountable for World War II.

Self-described atrocitologist Matthew White ranks the 100 worst atrocities in history by death count in his 2011 book, The Great Big Book of Horrible Things. Government is at the center of them all and the numbers are mind-boggling—surely dwarfing the total death from flames (whatever the total may be). Property loss associated with government-caused wars and atrocities would also seem on a scale far exceeding the oxidation process we call fire.

Now back to New York City. It appears what’s true for the world regarding the costs of fire and government is also true for the Big Apple.

Over seven decades, from 1776 to 1845, three conflagrations struck NYC: the Great Fire of 1776, the Great Fire of 1835and the Great Fire of 1845No fire in the city since killed as many or destroyed as much as they did.

The blaze of 1776 wiped out between 10 and 25 percent of the city’s buildings (upwards of a thousand structures); the death toll is unknown but likely no more than a dozen or two. The fire this very week in 1835 destroyed more than half a billion dollars in property (in today’s dollars), killed two people, and burned so brightly that Philadelphians could see it 80 miles away. Thirty people died in the 1845 inferno but property damage was about half that of 1835.

That’s bad, no two ways about it. But guess what policies of New York state and city governments produced in death and destruction just in this pandemic year of 2020? Though buildings are still standing, in contrast to the city after fires of the past, the losses in other ways this year are staggering.

From the Big Apple to Albany, New York has had one of the most aggressive (and clumsy) responses to COVID-19 in America. The results are not pretty.

In August, the New York Times reported that one-third of New York’s small businesses may be gone forever. The state is suffering from an unemployment rate of 9.8 percent, nearly three times its rate prior to the pandemic and the third-highest rate in the US. New government statistics say minority communities have been hit particularly hard by the job losses.

“Unemployment rates in communities of color skyrocketed during this period, with roughly one in four Black, Hispanic, and Asian workers out of work,” New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer noted in a recently released report.

With a lack of jobs and many of New York City’s most attractive draws—top-notch dining, ubiquitous theaters, dazzling museums, fashion, and networking—neutralized, thousands of New Yorkers have simply moved on.

“Roughly a net of 70,000 New York City residents have left the area since COVID-19 first hit the country earlier this year, resulting in approximately $34 billion in lost income, according to a study released Tuesday by location analytics company Unacast,” Celine Castronuovo reports at The Hill.

One could reasonably ask, But what positive results were realized by these government restrictions?

Tragically, probably very little.

Despite its aggressive lockdown, New York currently has the second-highest mortality rate in America. In most cases, it’s unfair to blame high mortality rates on government officials, since evidence suggests there is little to no correlation between lockdown stringency and COVID-19 mortality. But that’s not the case in New York.

In a devastatingly callous order in March, Governor Cuomo sent COVID-19 patients into nursing homes where those most vulnerable to the virus live. Officially, some 6,500 nursing home residents statewide died from COVID-19 but that doesn’t count those who died from the virus after being transferred out and into a hospital.

That would likely bring the total to at least 10,000. New York City comprises 43 percent of the population of New York State, translating into about 4,300 nursing home deaths. If only 10 percent of that figure died directly due to the Governor’s order, that works out to 430 deaths in the city.

So while the data is far from precise, and isn’t entirely apples-to-apples, we are nonetheless driven to a seat-of-the-pants conclusion: The deaths and damage from government COVID policy in New York City in 2020 exceed (perhaps by a wide margin) that of the city’s Great Fires. That’s quite a feat when you think about it.

Without striking a single match, government this year likely harmed New Yorkers more than did the conflagrations of 1776, 1835, and 1845—combined.

We can certainly understand why New Yorkers right about now might appreciate something Henry David Thoreau once said: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”

Foundation for Economic Education (FEE)

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