Nationwide protests this summer have brought much attention to a crisis as old as our country — the countless Black lives lost to police violence. But there is another invisible war that Black Americans are losing: the battle against Covid-19. To date, more than 5.7 million people have been reported to be infected with the disease in the US; more than 178,000 have died. And the country’s most vulnerable communities have had to bear the brunt of America’s failure to contain the disease.
According to a June Washington Post poll, one in three Black Americans personally knows someone who has died from Covid-19, compared to 17 percent of Hispanics and 9 percent of white adults who said they have lost a friend, acquaintance, or loved one to the disease.
And yet the disproportionate toll the coronavirus has taken on communities of color was easy to anticipate. From historical redlining and segregation that created environments where Black people are packed into densely populated housing “projects” to the wealth gap spurred by years of discriminatory practices to systemic health care discrepancies, it is clear that Black America has long been battling to survive.
For many Black Americans, the impacts of the pandemic are compounded. Many have one or more family members who have died from the virus on top of neighbors, friends, friends of friends, or others in their communities. Facebook feeds are full of posts announcing another death, another virtual funeral, another remembrance page.
“Every time you look up, there is another R.I.P. post, or a friend seeking prayers for their loved one who is battling this cruel virus,” said Desha Hargrove of Detroit, who lost her husband to Covid-19 in March. “I am simply devastated at how this virus has mainly impacted our communities.”
We asked three Black people who lost loved ones to share their stories and what it’s like to experience multiple deaths, sometimes within families, neighborhoods, or larger communities — and what it’s like to cope, often from a distance. These are their stories.
Desha Hargrove, Detroit, Michigan
Lost her husband Jason Hargrove
Michigan, like states all across the US, did not implement mask mandates in a timely fashion. On July 10, months after Desha Hargrove’s husband Jason died, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order making it mandatory to wear masks or face coverings in public. By then, the state had reported more than 67,000 confirmed cases and more than 6,000 deaths, with Detroit — a mostly Black city — taking the biggest hit.
Jason and I knew each other for 23 years and we were happily married for 12. We were introduced through mutual friends — the friends didn’t last but Jason and I did. I would describe Jason as a loving gentle giant, so much fun. He loved to DJ and was a great father to our five children.
When the reports started coming out about this virus, nobody understood what was going on. You were hearing about this “flu-like” bug, so we put in our minds that it was just a flu, but a stronger strain of it. Still, we knew we had to take precautions, because he was a [bus driver] public worker.
Initially, there was no order in place and masks weren’t required. But Jason was very careful and made sure to spray surfaces with disinfectant and even wear gloves. He put up a message on social media one day saying a lady was coughing on the bus carelessly, telling people to cover up and wear masks to protect themselves and him. That day, when he came home, he was really distressed about her coughing. He sat the rest of the day in disgust. I tried to comfort him.
The next two days, Jason started to feel funny. He told me he felt like he was coming down with a cold. I started laughing and told him, “Don’t you start that.” I knew he could sometimes be such a big baby and I thought he was exaggerating. But that Sunday he was really tired. He liked to DJ, so I pushed so much that night for him to play music. He got on live, did a video. We had fun, until about 2 am. By Monday morning, it was coming down on him and by the next day, he had a high fever.
I took him to the emergency. I didn’t get out of the parking lot before he called me and told me he was ready for me to come pick him up — it was that fast. They told him to go on a 14-day quarantine and gave a prescription for Tylenol and a prescription for high blood pressure, because his pressure was high. When I asked if they tested him, he said no.
He went home and started home remedies and he called his job to let them know — he was still worried about work. Not too long after, I noticed his cuticles were blue and took him to emergency again. It was an extremely beautiful spring day in Detroit and many people were out on the streets. I was so angry at them. During his second visit to the ER, they listened to his lungs and said they were clear and that the fever would break. They didn’t test him, again.
The next day, Jason asked me to set him up in another room in the house because he didn’t want to get me sick. That was so hard for me. It was even harder when I heard him crying in the bathroom. He was crying so hard and praying, asking God to remove whatever sickness is in his body. “What is this? Take this out of my body,” he pleaded.
He went to the hospital again and he was finally admitted. The hospital never called. They never let me know anything. I called and called and called. When I finally got through to a nurse and asked to talk to my husband, she told me he couldn’t talk because he was on a ventilator, like all of the patients on that floor. Still, one of the nurses assured me he was going to be “just fine.”
The next morning was April 1 and I called first thing. I got the run-around for over an hour. First they told me there was no one by that name on the floor, then they put me on hold several times. Finally, a doctor broke the news to me that my husband had passed. “Please tell me this is April Fool’s Day,” I thought to myself.
They never called me. I never got not one update. Then I saw Jason all over the news. His video message [a YouTube video telling people to wear masks on the bus] had gone viral. I saw the mayor do a news conference on him, but nobody called me, his wife.
When I finally got the death certificate, I found out he died on the 31st — the day they said he was doing so well. He died only an hour after and no one ever reached out to his family. You tell me: Did this Black life matter?
My life has been greatly impacted by this terrible virus. I lost the greatest love of my life and, unfortunately, have also been deeply affected by the loss of five others — all of whom were Black, beautiful human beings. I am simply devastated at how this virus has mainly impacted our communities. I am still asking, “Why?” Every time you look up, there is another R.I.P. post, or a friend seeking prayers for their loved one who is battling this cruel virus. Just horrifying!
Cassandra White, Houston, TX
Lost her wife Reverend Vickey Gibbs
In Houston, Texas — where two of Desha’s children virtually attended a service for their father — Cassandra White is still reeling from the loss of her wife Vickey Gibbs to Covid-19. Houston is another city where the disease has disproportionately claimed the lives of Black people. A breakdown of fatalities by race revealed that 57 percent of those who have died in the city from Covid-19 were African American.
For a system that is not set up to actually be “equal,” it’s expected that more Black people would hurt from the pandemic.
Vickey was a voice for many people of color. She was the advocate. She spoke up. She was that presence. She had already been living with systemic lupus and lived longer than expected, so she was very careful. She wore gloves, sprayed disinfectant, used hand sanitizer, and washed her hands. She was also still very active as much as she could be.
It saddens me and upsets me. We are a people who thrive in community bonding. Whether it’s at home, at the family cookout, or the Sunday church service, being in community and being with family of birth or by choice is our superpower and currently our downfall. Anytime she could be on the front lines with the movement, there would always be people who would follow her. She spoke for marginalized folks and was constantly emailing and writing letters to senators.
On June 30, she took a test. Right around that time, Sahara dust was coming through, so we weren’t really sure [it was Covid-19] until we got the results. We were both in denial about it. When I found out she was positive, I was angry because of all of the things we avoided in order for her to not get it.
She was always in pain but learned how to manage that pain successfully. Having the virus and having lupus, she knew full well what the possibilities were by the time it was bad enough for her to go to the hospital.
They told me right away that she was very, very sick and they would do everything they could to pull her through. They were really honest. They didn’t beat around the bush. The ICU nurses were coming down to help her because everywhere was full. She was never able to get a bed in the ICU. They were hoping to transfer her but everything was booked.
The ER was the last place that she wanted to be. I personally feel like we waited too long to get her help. We were both in denial and not having enough information about the disease. Now I want people to know that if you can’t breathe, whether you know you’re positive or not, chances are it’s pneumonia. Please go to the ER. It’s one of those unfortunate life lessons that we can hopefully help someone else not to have. Even though you may be a fighter, you may be able to get through this, but there are things you can get at the hospital that will help.
The response [from the government] seems to convey, “Let them die.” It seems to me that there is a systematic attack on people of color to exterminate us one by one by any means necessary. The government is pushing to reopen schools. And they have and are, but at what cost? Our children are our future. But sadly, for many Black and Brown people, keeping the children at home is not feasible.
RMCC has lost three members that I know of. Some other deaths were undetermined. Many others have been very sick and recovered. Many have lost family members and not been able to be with them at the end of their life. For a congregation that had such a large number of deaths during the AIDS epidemic, half of the whole, it can cause flashbacks to that time when we did not know what was next, had so many to grieve at the same time, and had both rational and irrational fears of contagion.
We are starting two different grief groups at the end of this month. We continue to do curbside service for those needing food from Pride Charities. The demand has grown.
Kern Bruce, Spotswood, NJ
Lost his aunt and cousin to Covid-19
The East Coast was the epicenter of the disease when it first arrived on America’s shores, with New York and New Jersey taking the hardest hits. In New Jersey, a state where about 13 percent of residents are Black, 18 percent of deaths from coronavirus were Black. Newark, one of NJ’s biggest cities with a high proportion of Black, poor residents, reported more than 190,000 cases and more than 14,000 deaths as of August 2020. Kern Bruce’s aunt was among those Black casualties.
I lost my cousin and aunt to Covid-19. They both passed within two weeks of each other. When I found out, it was just out of nowhere like, “Oh, your aunt has Covid.” And a few days later it was like, “She passed from Covid.” Same thing with my cousin.
It shook me to my core.
In both situations, nobody could go to the funeral. The funerals were held via YouTube. It took me weeks to click on the link to watch it. It was just such a strange way of sending someone off — so removed from what was actually happening. The point of a funeral is not just for the person who died or for the people who passed — it’s a way of coping for families left behind. To grieve together, hug. You can’t do that in these circumstances.
During quarantine, my uncle took my cousin out to the market to run errands. We suspect he contracted it simply by being outside in public. Luckily, my uncle didn’t contract it. I wish that people took this more seriously in the beginning.
When I first heard about the pandemic, the first thing that came to mind was Newark. Newark is my heart. I have so many wonderful experiences there and lived there for years. But sadly, I saw the writing on the wall. It has a population of [Black] people who are in low-income circumstances and people living on top of each other.
The American health care system has implicit bias in terms of treatment. How was that going to work in the pandemic? People there don’t have the resources like a middle-class white family. People are being turned away from hospitals. Of course, poor people are not going to get the same kind of health care as someone who makes 100k a year.
The dude who is occupying the White House has made science a political thing. It’s so weird that the richest country in the world is doing so poorly. People who are historically accustomed to things working in their favor, they are in a very privileged position. They are so self-absorbed and conditioned to expect things to work for them that something as simple as wearing a mask becomes a whole affront on their freedom.
I don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s just this tremendous anxiety.
Tiffanie Drayton is a freelance writer. Find her on Twitter @draytontiffanie.
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