Kaye Whitehead was raised with old-school values, so she is not accustomed to raising her voice at her parents. But that is what the Baltimore author and radio host did when she learned that her 76-year-old father intended to attend a funeral.
She begged him to change his mind and screamed into the phone as she reminded him that he faced many of the health challenges that placed him in a high-risk group for covid-19 infection. When he’d heard enough, Whitehead tried her mother, pleading with her to hide the car keys if her husband was leaving to attend the funeral service.
In the end, Whitehead’s father stayed put. Since then, the family has learned that at least 27 of the 50 people who attended that funeral have since reportedly exhibited symptoms for covid-19. Six have been hospitalized. Four of the mourners have died. All of them were black.
Kaye Whitehead doesn’t feel like a hero. Perhaps her protests helped save her father’s life, but it deprived him of the ritual he desperately needed to process his pain. Her story is heartbreaking but also instructive. Let’s focus on the hard lessons in this tale first.
Whitehead’s father had heard the warnings to stay at home, shelter in place and avoid gatherings of any kind. It wasn’t that he dismissed that information; it just sank in on a different level when it came from a trusted source.
Trust carries special weight in the fight against the virus. Black Americans’ well-documented distrust of the health-care system (and well-earned cynicism about the Trump administration’s interest in their well-being) presents a unique challenge for the communities in the path of the pandemic.
The skepticism dates to covert experiments such as the Tuskegee study where treatment was secretly withheld from black men so doctors could examine the progression of a deadly venereal disease. And it is a well-established fact that blacks and other minorities experience more illness, worse health-care outcomes and higher mortality rates than whites. While some of that can be attributed to the higher prevalence of such ailments as hypertension, diabetes and asthma in these communities, there are other factors that have made this virus especially crippling.
A dangerous myth that black people could not catch the virus somehow took root on social media. Before you dismiss those who embraced that rumor as fantastically ill-informed, remember that a few weeks ago, most Americans believed that wearing masks in public was unnecessary.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, has made surprisingly little effort to target warnings to the hardest-hit populations, much less do so in ways that speak to the many diverse parts of those communities. This is tragic and strange: White House coronavirus task force members Anthony S. Fauci and Deborah Birx employed exactly that strategy to warn about the dangers of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. The messaging to gay men then was necessarily different from the messaging to hemophiliacs, injection-needle drug users, or minorities in cities with high concentrations of cases. If only this administration would give the experts the funds and range to do that kind of nuanced work now.
Remember, too, that in Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Milwaukee and New Orleans, blacks are up to six times more likely than whites to die of covid-19. And in those communities experiencing so much sickness and death, the comforting rituals surrounding the loss of a loved one have themselves become vectors of doom, what epidemiologists call “super spreading events.” And so just when heartache comes in multiples, funerals are all but forbidden.
Between March 21 and March 29, Antoinette Franklin of New Orleans and three of her adult sons all died as a result of complications from covid-19. Herman Franklin Jr. was the first of the sons to die, followed by brothers Anthony and Timothy. Their longtime church tried to hold a memorial for all four family members but had to keep the list of mourners so tight that they sat staggered with a single person occupying every other pew.
In Detroit, Sandy Brown buried her husband of 35 years and her only son on Friday. The father, a retired store clerk, was 59. The son, a college student, was 20. They died three days apart, both victims of covid-19. Unable to grieve with her family and friends, Sandy Brown stood at the double grave site and waved to supporters sitting in a line of cars. Covid-19 is indeed a cruel illness that snatches away lives and robs families of the things that help provide closure and comfort.
There are new funeral protocols appearing now. No more than 10 people. Chairs set eight feet apart. No hugs or prayer cards passed. No repast with heaping platters of church chicken and children running around in starchy clothes and uncomfortable shoes. Alternative services are fashioned from Zoom calls, each person mourning from their kitchen or couch.
Church services, funerals, even the communion found at the beauty shop or barber are how we tunnel through life’s storms. They are what help us believe in the power of the collective and the collective power of faith.
Right now, we must figure out how to hold on to the promise of tomorrow even as we are disconnected from so much that we hold dear.