Why San Francisco’s London Breed Handled the Pandemic Better Than Your Mayor

London Breed, CC-By, Gage Skidmore

Mayor Breed made some of the best decisions to stop Covid-19 from impacting the city of San Francisco. At the same time New York was making decisions that would cast it into a hell of refrigerator trucks full of bodies and mass graves, Breed shut down the city and closed the schools. How did she know? How was she wiser than the many storied mayors and governors across America, or Europe?

She was better because she’s a black woman from a violent background.

That’s not to say all black women from violent backgrounds would have made the right choices or that white men from the suburbs are incapable of making the same choices she did. But she had the distinct advantage of knowing, right down in her bones, that very bad things can happen very quickly.

Updated information available at https://sf.gov/data/covid-19-cases-and-deaths

In and interview with UCSF she talked about losing people to gun violence. That resonated for me, and I understood why she’d responded so well at the same time New York was responding so poorly, despite the New Yorkers being in communication with Newsom and Breed, California and San Francisco, directly at the beginning of the crisis.

Growing up around gun violence, which I did as well, will teach you that a situation can go out of control fast and end up in a place you don’t expect or have the tools to deal with.

London Breed and I have both lived in environments of poverty, addiction, and violence. When Covid-19 started to spread, and the nerdy medical experts started saying things were uncertain, with the slight stutter that nerds often get when they don’t know how to handle something that’s about to head south, fast. I pulled my daughter out of school early and provided everyone around me with masks.

Breed declared a state of emergency in the city of San Francisco before the first case was identified.

This is not to say Breed did everything right, she didn’t. She was as arrogant as California politicians usually are. She was as foolish as anyone who goes to the French Laundry in a Pandemic. She was annoying at times and dithered too much. She didn’t get resources to the right neighborhoods when it was needed. San Francisco took too long to reach out to local community leaders to spread and get information from poorer communities. Breed was a flawed Democrat in the most pedestrian of ways. But those character flaws didn’t prevent her public health experts from being able to put the fear of god in her about what was going to happen next, and that meant she made decisions that slowed the pandemic and saved lives.

Like everyone else, women from violent backgrounds were seeing something entirely new. But unlike most people in positions of privilege in our society, we were also seeing something that was about to turn bad and start killing people, and that — that’s something we’ve seen before.

Daily deaths in New York City

Anyone who has faced trauma and lost people knows how to be scared. There’s a further lesson on taking action in the face of the fear and lack of power that is not universal. On the other side of the societal coin, there’s men who are trained from birth to take charge and make decisions. They are anointed leaders, and often do well, especially in steady and predictable times. But they haven’t learned, in their bones, about the instability and uncertainty of life. They haven’t seen dead people before they’re fixed up for the funeral, they haven’t suddenly had to talk down someone with a gun, and then try to get the person with the gun home safely.

The well-educated, high-status white guys in nice suits aren’t necessarily bad people— some are kind and quite moral. But they haven’t had to build their homes on the shifting sands of poverty, violence, and addiction. The skills you learn from doing that — how to be scared, how to productively listen to fear and act when you can’t be certain — those are the skills that are useful in a global crisis.

The real reason we need to transfer out the old men of the 20th century and their attitudes, and replace them with black women from poor, violent backgrounds, is that this is going to be a century of exogenous shocks.

The exogenous point is important. The old white men of the cold war didn’t do a good job of running the world per se, but we made it, despite all the internal strife these men created for themselves, each other, and the billions of people trying to live in the world. The 20th century was pretty nice that way, we didn’t have many problems we weren’t actively creating for ourselves at the time.

The 21st century will not be like that.

Disease, climate change, environmental collapse, fires, droughts, plastic poison, polluted water, declining fish stocks, and on and on, these are exogenous problems, requiring the emotional literacy and intellectual quickness that comes with being a woman raised in poverty, violence, and addiction. The 21st century requires people who know how to work fast and creatively while scared shitless in an out-of-control situation. Someone who knows bad things, real bad things, can happen to her and those she loves. Someone who has a clear idea of what parts of the world she can control, and what parts she can’t. Of course there are men who can do this, but they’re outliers. It’s not how culture creates manhood — to function with little relative power and make compromises. Men, particularly elite men, aren’t raised to know when to lose gracefully and when to outwit death.

Men have another disadvantage here: they can learn that bad things really do happen quickly, but they are taught that they aren’t powerless to stop the bad things from happening. Women get taught that they’re powerless to stop bad things from happening pretty early on. We’re taught to figure out what we might be able to control, and work with that. And that’s what we’re going to be doing for the next 100 or so years.

We’ll be working out what we can still do on a planet that is sometimes lovely but also unstable, violent, and potentially out to kill us at random times.

Sounds like women’s work to me.

Thanks to my Patrons, who make this possible. If you’d like to support this work, head over to my Patreon account.

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Writing on how we humans should manage the bit of galactic dust we call home

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Quinn Norton

Quinn Norton

A journalist, essayist, and sometimes photographer of Technology, Science, Hackers, Internets, and Civil Unrest.

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