Covid, Race, and the Revolution

Fighting for Covid justice, a love letter to Black America, how to stall evictions, and more, in this week’s Covid, Race, and the Revolution.

Issue No 33. December 9, 2020

Fighting for Covid Justice

By Kristin Urquiza

We are used to disasters striking suddenly: two airplanes hit the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 in New York City. A lone gunman entered an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and killed 26 people, including 20 kindergartners. For each of these catastrophes and countless others, we took time to acknowledge what happened, to honor those who had passed, and — in the case of September 11 — we vowed to “never forget.”

The United States has now lost 287,000 people to Covid, 100 times the death toll of the 9/11 attacks, and models show we are on track to lose 400,000 by February 1. Marked By COVID, an organization that I co-founded in the wake of my father’s death, is on a quest to ensure that we never forget them and we help our nation fully and equitably recover.

On June 11, Mark Urquiza, my dad, woke up with a cough and fever. The next day he went to the doctor, where he was tested for coronavirus and told to quarantine, monitor his symptoms, wait for test results, and report to the hospital if he was unable to breathe. Five days later, he reached that threshold. My mother took him to the emergency room as he gasped for air.

For 19 days, he fought for his life as nurses held up a tablet for me to videoconference with my intubated father before he died alone in the ICU, from multiple organ failure caused by the virus.

He was an otherwise healthy and exuberant 65-year-old Mexican American who had been looking forward to retirement in a few months’ time.

My parents never left my childhood home in the Maryvale neighborhood of Phoenix, which is 70 percent Latinx, mostly immigrant, and underinsured. In the days following my dad’s illness, others in Maryvale waited in line — in the 106-degree heat — for 13 hours to get tested. Similar waits existed in South Phoenix, a historically Black neighborhood. In his rush to reopen at the will of President Trump, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey promised adequate testing and contact tracing. His promise didn’t extend to the communities of essential workers and communities of color who were bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Just weeks after reopening, Maryvale reported the highest case rate per capita in the world.

Every step of the way, I thought “this shouldn’t be happening.” I knew that countless Brown and Black children like me were experiencing this nightmare. No matter what we have achieved in our lives through education and hard work, a mismanaged public health crisis could bear down on the people we loved the most.

Having just graduated from UC Berkeley’s Goldman School’s mid-career public policy program, I easily identified the policy and leadership failures connected to my father’s death and the Covid surge. This was avoidable, and people of color were dying as a result.

Just a few weeks before my dad woke up sick, the world witnessed the horrific death of George Floyd. As a society we made a commitment to advancing racial justice. As my dad and countless neighbors died around me, it became clear to me that I could further the fight for racial justice the most by leveraging my story for Covid justice. On the day I buried my father, my partner and I launched Marked By COVID to uplift the stories and call for a coordinated, data-driven national response to the pandemic. In my father’s obituary I wrote, “his death is due to the carelessness of the politicians who continue to jeopardize the health of Black and Brown bodies.”

Since then, we’ve helped countless families, mostly families of color, share their stories and call out elected officials who have failed them. Our stories and commitment to truth-telling, honest obituaries, and direct actions helped flip Arizona blue and win Biden the presidency.

Now we’re developing a policy platform that is commensurate to the impacts of Covid and seeks to ensure Covid justice. We’re working to ensure that the long-term Covid response prioritizes the needs of the people most impacted and is composed of “5 Rs:” Recovery, Recognition, Restitution, Resiliency, Response. We also aim to adequately address the short- and long-term public health, economic, environmental, and racial dimensions of the crisis as well as the trauma that so many of us have suffered. Equally critical to true recovery, we must acknowledge and remedy the harm caused by the inept, callous federal pandemic response.

Covid is a national disaster. A crisis. A tragedy. And it was wholly preventable. In addition to “never forgetting” those lost, we will never forget the true cause of death for tens of thousands of Black and Brown people in the US: the purposeful negligence of elected officials on top of a system that disregards the basic needs of Black and Brown people. In how and why my father passed I understood that the system deemed him expendable though he was indeed irreplaceable. Every single person lost to Covid had a life that mattered. We’re building a movement to ensure that our nation honors the sacrifice forced upon each of them and their families by advancing change and justice.

Kristin Urquiza is activist-in-chief of Marked By COVID. She holds a master of public affairs from UC Berkeley and has 15 years of experience in nonprofit policy and advocacy. On Twitter, follow @MarkedByCOVID, @kdurquiza, and her co-founder and partner, Christine Keeves, @ckeeves.

News, Analysis, and Commentary, Curated from Around the Web

A love letter to Black America

The Black Coalition Against COVID has spearheaded “Love Letter to Black America, from America’s Black Doctors and Nurses,” a campaign to engage the Black community in a factual, honest conversation about the coronavirus so people can make appropriate health decisions. The historically Black medical schools, Black physicians and nurses organizations, and the National Urban League are partners in the campaign, which is harnessing trusted, respected health professionals and community leaders to promote acceptance of a Covid vaccine. You can follow the conversation on social with #ILoveUs. 

Los Angeles Times columnist Erika Smith tells KCRW radio that empowering Black medical professionals is key to overcoming Black reluctance to take a Covid vaccine, but building trust requires patience. “You can’t fix decades of mistrust in a matter of weeks or months. We need to get comfortable that this is going to take a bit of time.” New York Times columnist Charles Blow traces the history of discrimination and abusive experimentation that gave rise to Black mistrust in the medical establishment generally and vaccines in particular. Democracy Now profiles Dr. Chris Pernell, a Black public health physician in Newark, New Jersey, who volunteered to participate in a Covid vaccine trial after her father died of the disease.

A new poll finds that 34 percent of Black Americans know someone who has died of Covid; 23 percent say it was someone close, according to Newsweek. Tampa Bay Times describes how Black funeral directors, who have historically played an important role in the cultural fabric of their communities, are responding to the wave of deaths. In Kansas City, more than a dozen Black churches are becoming a new front line for coronavirus education and testing, KCUR reports.

Street art blossoms

 The mass movement for racial justice that burst across the country after the police killing of George Floyd has triggered an explosion of political street art, Bloomberg CityLab reports. It’s part of a broad surge in murals and other grassroots public art in cities transformed by the pandemic. The art is more than a symbolic gesture or an effort to turn plywood-covered storefronts into sources of inspiration. “When you put up a mural, it amplifies community voices and amplifies the power of mass movements,” said Nicolas Lampert, an artist and member of Voces de los Artistas, an art affinity group with a Milwaukee immigrant rights center.

A series by the Social Science Research Council asks prominent scholars to select a visual artifact of this time that will help future researchers understand the Covid-19 crisis. In this installment, historian Jelani Cobb chooses a photo of a delivery worker on a bicycle, pedaling past a luxury goods store with a boarded-up window that says, “The journey that was paused will eventually start again.” The image illustrates how Covid and its ripples have stripped away the facade of equality and opportunity, making a good case for a revitalized worker movement, Cobb says. “There’s a political saying, ‘You never waste a crisis and never let a crisis go to waste.’ When you have a crisis, it is a chance for significant change in this country.” 

Activists stall evictions

As eviction hearings go forward in all but two states, often remotely, an activist tenants’ group in Kansas City is using direct intervention — videobombing — to delay proceedings, Technology Review reports. KC Tenants says it disrupted 155 hearings in November by gaining access, objecting to the proceedings (saying things like: “No one should be evicted during a pandemic. This is not justice. This is not due process. This is violence.”) and supporting renters (“Tenants on the line, this is not your fault. You deserve a decent home. You deserve shelter during the pandemic.”). The tactic won’t solve the housing crisis but it seems to be effective at stalling evictions and emboldening renters to fight. 

As of Tuesday evening, Eviction Lab counted 151,774 evictions filed since the beginning of the pandemic in the 27 cities it tracks; comprehensive national figures are unknown.

Nearly 12 million renters will owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities by January, Moody’s Analytics warns. The data — coupled with food lines that stretch to thousands — underscore the untenable financial duress of many families and the urgency of congressional action on Covid relief. 

The future of transit

Transit agencies across the country are also reeling from the pandemic’s calamitous economic fallout as they experience steep reductions in ridership, the New York Times reports. Washington, DC, is considering eliminating weekend and late-night metro service and shutting 20 percent of stations, on top of large-scale layoffs already in the works. Atlanta has suspended 70 of the city’s 110 bus routes, and a New York City plan calls for a 40 percent cut in subway service. Such deep reductions would disproportionately hurt people of color, who rely heavily on public transportation, and gut local economic recovery.

A relief package under negotiation in Congress would give $15 billion to transit, less than half of what municipal leaders say is needed, Bloomberg CityLab reports. And there’s no guarantee lawmakers will come through with even that.

The Transportation Equity Caucus begins a webinar series Thursday to explore the intersections of policing and transportation and a vision for a future where transportation systems are safe and accessible for all. Register here. 

One pandemic, two realities

The Urban Institute sheds light on the enormous risks facing Black, Native American, and Latinx workers. A new report finds that more than half of them have essential jobs or nonessential ones that must be done in person and near other people, compared with 41 percent of White workers. Workers of color in these jobs earn less than their White counterparts, are less likely to have health insurance, and more often live in multigenerational households where the virus can spread. The findings underscore the need for policy solutions that are broad enough to address multifaceted inequities, yet targeted to prioritize people at highest risk, the report said.

Thousands of restaurant workers have returned to their jobs as indoor dining has reopened, but their tips have plummeted and they’re reporting a sharp rise in sexual harassment from customers, finds a new report from One Fair Wage.  Nearly 70 percent of the workers surveyed said their employer does not consistently follow all Covid safety protocols, and 44 percent said one or more of their restaurant co-workers had contracted the coronavirus. 

The Los Angeles Times puts a human face on the disparities confronting workers, in a story about two Saint Louis-area couples: Mitchell and Crystal Simmons Hughes, a Black janitor and nursing assistant living in the city who drained their savings after he lost  work time to Covid; and Scott and Kristin Ladewig, a White couple who live about 15 miles away in a suburb and have maintained their well-paying tech jobs from home. Data show that the number of employees in jobs paying less than $27,000 a year — just above Mitchell Hughes’s income — has declined 20 percent since January, while the number of high-wage employees has fully recovered from pandemic losses.

With coronavirus reaching unprecedented levels in California, the Los Angeles Times looks at the outsized impact on lower income, predominantly Latinx neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley and across the southern and central regions of the state. Some 55 percent of the state’s Latinx residents work in essential jobs. Poor air quality in many of these communities compounds the risks.

Inequality in remote education

Black, Latinx, and low-income families have sued California, alleging that the state has failed to provide a free and equal education to all students during the pandemic, the Los Angeles Times reports. Community Coalition in South LA, a plaintiff in the suit, is one of many community organizations that has tried to step into the breach by holding virtual programs in academics and technology and offering students one-on-one tutoring. 

A  survey of more than 1,000 families in South and East Los Angeles found online schooling has hurt low-income Black and Latinx students, who often lack the appropriate technology for learning at home. USC professors Hernán Galperin and Stephen Aguilar conducted the survey in July and write in The Conversation that school districts have improved remote instruction and digital access since then — but early data indicates that student attendance remains down and more children are getting failing grades. “Another major concern is whether remote learning will affect the transition to college for students who would be the first in their families to continue with their education beyond high school.”

The challenges are nationwide. An analysis of test scores of nearly 4.4 million students in grades three through eight this fall found that most fell short in math, compared with pre-pandemic test results. Black and Latinx students and those who attend high-poverty schools also showed declines in reading, widening long-standing gaps, NBC News reports

Victoria Bowden, a 25-year-old Black woman in Stone Mountain, Georgia, deconstructs the systems crushing the South’s young people during the pandemic, in a powerful and deeply personal essay in Facing South.  

A borderless pandemic

Without any national strategy for Covid control, public health responses vary from state to state, and sometimes from one city to the next. The result: places with few restrictions are spreading the virus beyond their borders, ProPublica reports. These regulatory differences and their impact are most obvious in border areas between restrictive and permissive states — for example, between Washington and Idaho, Minnesota and South Dakota, and Illinois and Iowa. One state’s tough rules are undermined by its neighbor’s refusal to act, becauses viruses know nothing about borders on a map. “In some ways, the whole country is essentially living with the strategy of the least effective states, because states interconnect,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

The interconnected effects of the pandemic are also playing out on a global scale. In parts of Asia and Africa, cases of cholera, diphtheria, and pertussis have risen, and measles and polio are resurging, as Covid has disrupted vaccination programs and sucked up government and charitable resources, The New Yorker writes. While affluent countries see imminent Covid vaccines as the beginning of the end of the pandemic, developing countries could be saddled with outbreaks of deadly, preventable epidemics for years to come. The US, too, is experiencing an alarming decline in vaccinations across the lifespan, posing particular dangers for people of color and immigrants, who already had lower rates of vaccination, according to a new report from the National Foundation of Infectious Diseases. 

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Michael McAfee and Angela Glover Blackwell are grateful for the contributions of Fran Smith, Milly Hawk Daniel, Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Jennifer Pinto, Heather Tamir, Ana Louie, Janet Dickerson, and Mark Jones to produce the COVID-19 & Race commentary.