There Was One EMT Checking All International Arrivals at JFK Airport: This Should Terrify Us

by Brendan Maslauskas Dunn

A little over a month ago I quit my job, moved out of my apartment and moved my things into storage. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t struggling to get by, so I decided to spend the next several months travelling across Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and North Africa. I wanted to live out the dreams I have had since I was a child; namely, to see the world. I also had plans to meet up with social movement activists and organizers, labor militants and anarchists, and to do some longer term work in refugee camps. Along the way I would also do some reporting for Love and Rage and some other media outlets. 

I started my journey in Portugal, then ventured across Ireland, the UK, Germany and the Czech Republic. But the further East I headed, the more COVID-19 continued its spread around the world. In Europe it started as a trickle, then rapidly morphed into a surge. My original itinerary would have me go to Austria, then back to Germany again to visit the cities my great grandparents were born in. But then the borders shut down. I decided to instead go to Hungary by way of Slovakia by train to stay with a member of the Black Rose Anarchist Federation, but just as I was looking up train schedules, the Slovakian government declared that its borders too were shutting down. “I’ll go North, to Poland and Lithuania,” I said to myself under my breath. But the writing was on the wall. Country by country was declaring a national emergency, shutting borders, limiting train and plane traffic, and giving orders for businesses, bars and restaurants to shut down. 

As I sat in the third floor flat I was staying in in the historic Žižkov neighborhood, and gazed at the iconic Soviet-era Žižkov Television Tower outside my window, I struggled to come to a decision. Should I stay or should I go? I was reading the news obsessively and had a terrible feeling deep inside me that the fallout for the Coronavirus would be much more severe in the US. Do I stay in the Czech Republic? What would happen if I get sick? If I get stuck here for months? On the one hand, the Czech Republic has socialized healthcare and workers have some extra benefits and protections that most workers in the US struggle to get. Also, without even asking for any help, a group of anarchists in Prague were already arranging long term housing and support for me if I needed it. That was real mutual aid in action. However, some of my fear and uncertainty persisted – navigating the medical system might be difficult, I was halfway around the world from home, and I have a blood disorder that puts me at greater risk in getting the virus and developing complications. 

But did I want to go back to the US? I didn’t currently have health insurance in the US, the government was so far behind where they should be in order to effectively battle the virus. I started to think of the societal and structural deficits that would create the coming storm of panic, rapid spread of the virus and an untold number of deaths that could have been avoided. Nearly 80 million Americans are either uninsured or underinsured. Short staffing and budget cuts at hospitals across the country, despite the best efforts of nurses unions to push back against this, is endemic. To make matters worse, so many people are skeptical of science, or believe in conspiracy theories pushed by right wing websites and organizations claiming to be the news as well as out of the halls of power. And with Trump at the helm, it was an almost guarantee that the crisis that the people of China, Iran and Italy faced would pale in comparison to what was in store for the US. I thought long and hard about my choices and decided that despite all of my concerns about the situation in the US, I wanted to be back home with my family.

I flew back by way of Moscow on Aeroflot, knowing that I would have complications if I had flown back home through Spain or the UK. One of the few moments I peaked out of the window on the plane, I looked down at the vast, icy expanse of Greenland. I seriously considered going there, or to Cuba, instead of the US. At least I knew I would be in more competent hands in either of those two places.

After a long nine hour flight, the plane landed at JFK International Airport. I waited in line for an hour and a half, which I later learned was a far shorter wait than what others experienced. As expected, nobody was keeping their recommended six foot distance as several hundred people anxiously stood in line. “Damn it,” I thought. “I haven’t touched my face all day. I wore a mask the whole flight. I sanitized everything with alcohol. The airport in Moscow wasn’t an issue, but this place is a nightmare. I’m definitely going to get sick here.”

Anyone who had either flown in from China or a dozen nations in Europe was herded into a tiny room. We filled out forms that were a few days out of date (they didn’t have the most current list of nations to check off with the largest cases of the virus). The workers there and TSA agents were clearly overworked and understaffed. They asked few questions as they hurried us through the process. 

I filled out my paperwork and gave it, along with my passport, to one of the workers. And there he was. Just him. Only him. Wearing a mask, a pair of latex gloves, and a plastic face visor to protect his eyes. In his hand he held a thermometer. He was an EMT. His eyes darted back and forth as he looked at everyone coming into the room, and he checked their temperature, one by one. “98.7. You’re good. 99.2. You’re good. 98.8. All clear.”

The wealthiest, most powerful nation in the history of the planet, was able to hire only one EMT with one thermometer to check all the international arrivals at one of the busiest airports in the world – during a global pandemic. The same nation that just tossed 1.5 trillion dollars into some amorphous hole in the stock market and is pledging to burn just as much money every day in the coming weeks. The same nation that can rapidly mobilize the largest military in the world to bomb, invade and kill people around the world in the sick pursuit of profit. This government was only able to get one EMT. One thermometer. This should terrify us. 

He pointed the thermometer at my forehead. “98.8. You’re good to go.” Another worker picked up my passport from a mound of other passports and handed it back to me. I was on my way. “We are so screwed,” I thought. Although nobody told me to do so, I decided it would be best for me, and for the broader public, to hole up in an apartment for a two week quarantine. 

Madness, I know. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The fear, uncertainty and feeling of powerlessness is numbing. We are all feeling it right now. But every single day, people are showing us that mutual aid, solidarity, and collective action are our best defenses. All across the US, people have set up mutual aid networks and organizations. Prisoners are organizing collective actions for their health and safety. Renters from coast to coast are planning a rent strike. Workers have successfully shut down their workplaces, walked off the job, or staged sit-ins to force their bosses to give them more protection, hazard pay, or let them go home. People are demanding the cancellation of debts, a moratorium on paying rents and mortgages, and universal healthcare. The times we are living in are painfully confusing. We can continue to remain alone and afraid, atomized and isolated, or we can cut through the physical distancing with a deep social solidarity. As more are seriously discussing a national rent strike, a general strike if we are forced to “return to normal” prematurely, and shouting “not dying for Wall Street”along the way, we may be just be able to create a better world from the ashes of this crisis. 

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