Pandemic Perspectives: New Orleans

Over 1,000 cases of COVID-19 have been attributed to this spring’s Mardi Gras celebrations. RAMESH BALA/TWITTER

Julian E.J. Sorapuru

Staff Writer

Julian Sorapuru was born and raised in New Orleans. He is currently based in New Orleans as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.

NEW ORLEANS — Over the past few weeks, there have been some big changes in the Big Easy. There are no more street performers filling the city’s humid air with sweet music, nor are there tourists flowing in like the Mighty Mississippi to attend festivals for anything under the sun, nor are there vivacious parties that continue on with the rising of the sun.

What does remain, however, are the people of New Orleans. And we are in dire straits.

At the time of publication, there have been over 5,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Orleans alone, with more than 200 deaths. The COVID-19 death rate is at over 30 per 100,000 people in New Orleans, almost double the rate of New York City’s. So, why has the coronavirus outbreak hit Louisiana’s biggest city so hard?

Mardi Gras season took place throughout the month of February and culminated with Mardi Gras on Feb. 25. It is estimated that more than one million people from all over the world filled the city during Carnival season. During parades, attendees are often in close contact with one another, so Mardi Gras offered prime conditions for COVID-19 to spread.

Furthermore, social distancing, shelter-in-place, and other personal preventative actions are difficult to practice for the 24% of New Orleans residents who live in poverty. Many New Orleanians at the poverty line live in overcrowded households, increasing the likelihood of spreading the virus. According to The Data Center, a research group based in New Orleans, one in four households in the city do not have access to the internet, limiting their ability to follow city health directives and access accurate information about the coronavirus.

Additionally, the Louisiana Department of Health revealed that 97% of the Louisiana residents who died from COVID-19 suffered from preexisting health conditions before contracting the virus, with the most prevalent conditions being diabetes, obesity, chronic kidney disease, and cardiac problems. 

On April 6, the department confirmed that about 70% of the victims in the state are black, which experts have attributed to structural racism in Louisiana’s healthcare system and social factors such as the front-facing nature of many jobs held by black New Orleanians. This figure is alarming for the city of New Orleans, whose African American population is 59%.

Even so, the city has not been defined by the disaster, but rather by the laissez-faire response of some residents.

“It feels like Sunday at like 5 p.m., but every single day,” said Dominique Dollenmayer, a USF alumna and Tulane University graduate student who has been living in New Orleans for about eight months. Dollenmayer admitted that “it’s just so frustrating driving around” because “there are hordes and hordes of people” still congregating at popular local parks. 

Ethen Pociask, a junior computer science major who is from New Orleans, believes being social is essential to the fabric of New Orleans life. “I think it’s really hard for people to accept that they can’t socially gather in a place. [New Orleans] is kind of built off of it. It’s such a crazy and weird time,” he said.

But Ali DeFazio, a USF alumna who has been in New Orleans for the majority of the COVID-19 crisis, believes that the disease itself has been hard for people to wrap their heads around. 

“It was so unfathomable that [the coronavirus] would hit the U.S., in our little bubble of privilege. ‘It won’t happen in America,’ I think a lot of people were feeling that, and I think people don’t want to believe in bad things happening,” said DeFazio. “There’s a cognitive dissonance and disruptiveness around bad situations.”

It is also important to remember the major impact that Hurricane Katrina had on New Orleans when contextualizing the lax attitude of some New Orleanians surrounding COVID-19. As a result of the devastation that Katrina caused, the city and its residents have become a bit desensitized to disasters.

“Every person you talk about [COVID-19] here with, they compare it to Katrina, and I mean, rightfully so, too,” said Pociask. “But at the same time, I think a lot of people are taking it like Katrina, not realizing how different it is from Katrina. I mean, it’s not a physical obstruction, we’re talking about something that’s just kind of floating through the air. And I think New Orleans has never had to deal with that before.”

Another fallout which draws a comparison between the coronavirus outbreak and Hurricane Katrina is the increased media attention and coverage of New Orleans in national news outlets.

“It’s a fact that New Orleans is having a disproportionately bad outbreak,” said DeFazio, who is also a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley’s journalism school and currently reporting on COVID-19 in California for the New York Times. “But, I also think about how New Orleans is a disaster zone for Americans and something about New Orleans is like an American treasure that people only seem to care about when something bad happens.”

“I woke up with a lot of text messages from friends sending me screenshots of national news sites saying that New Orleans is going to be the hardest hit place. And so, it’s funny because it’s kind of like ‘I know, I live here. I see it happening in front of me,’” said Dollenmayer.

Pociask is also witnessing first-hand how COVID-19 is affecting New Orleans, as well as the greater United States, and said that ultimately, he hopes that this pandemic will be a catalyst for social change. “The biggest tragedy would be if we get through this and we’re the same afterwards,” he said.

It may be a while before the good times to roll in the Crescent City once again.

Disclaimer: Ali DeFazio and Dominique Dollenmayer are former staff members of the San Francisco Foghorn.

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