Lifting seldom-heard voices in order to re-examine traditional social constructs and to cultivate love and empathy

Voices of Covid-19 Part Two: New Orleans

Many people who are not concerned about Coronavirus feel they don’t need to worry about it either because they are young or because they have no health risk factors. Some of these people have continued their normal activities and have not heeded the stay-at-home orders or mask-wearing advice. This is unfortunate because they could be carrying the virus without even knowing they have it, which puts other people at risk and keeps them even more isolated in their own homes.

Karran Harper Royal was at one time an education activist. I met her years ago when she traveled to Denver for an educational activist event that I also attended. She is situated in a hotbed of Covid-19. She spends her day isolating inside her home making masks because she cannot focus on any activity outside of the pandemic. “I make masks for whoever needs them,” she says. “I’m putting out the word.”

Karran lives with her husband and an adult son who both are essential employees outside of the home. Because of this, in addition to sewing masks, she spends time wiping the house down. She says her house is large enough that they can easily avoid being near each other. Her husband drives for UPS and her son just got a job, after searching for five years, at a retail store as a cashier. Louisiana Rehabilitative Services helped him find the job because of his disability. She said that she is less concerned about the money that her son is making and more concerned that he gets the life experience of having a job. “It’s hard to tell him to quit after it took five years to find this. It is important that he learn how to take care of himself.” Especially now.

While black people only make up 33% of the population of Louisiana, 70% of the deaths in the state were black people at the start of the Covid outbreak. Karran says the ratio has dropped to around 60% as of the time she and I talked. “Everyone knows someone who has died.” She has watched the numbers over the weeks. First there were parishes that did not have any cases. Slowly she has watched as every parish started having cases.

New Orleans, known for Mardi Gras, LSU, and Hurricane Katrina, is one of the hardest-hit cities with Covid-19 in the US. As of April 04, it was the third-hardest hit with deaths. Many of the reasons for the rapid spreading and large numbers are similar to those stated in my article about Detroit. Karran expounded on other issues facing the black community.

Redlining and Coronavirus

Poor populations often live together with multiple generations in a small home. Small homes with many people living together makes social distancing near impossible. Karran feels lucky in her middle-class lifestyle to have a house large enough for her, her husband and son to safely socially distance at home. However, she says there many other “layers” of reasons for the racial disparity with the virus infection rates.

In many areas, redlining (keeping people of color restricted to living in certain areas through cunning and under-handed laws) will place poor people in areas that experience more air and water pollution. This of course places them at risk of more illnesses. There is a line of oil refineries that run from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that is famously called “Cancer Alley”. People living along these areas are the poorest of the poor, are usually African American, and have many health issues, not just cancer. When a person already is suffering inexcusable poverty and health issues, they are most certainly not going to survive a round of Covid-19. Indeed, St. John the Baptist Parrish, where Cancer Alley is located, has the highest per capita rate of coronavirus death in the United States.

Like Detroit, New Orleans’ poor neighborhoods have food deserts. Often the only place to get food are small convenience stores which generally do not carry nutritious staples. To get to a full-service grocery store, people in these poor areas have to take public transportation, which of course is germ-infected. Karran shared that, like other major cities, public transportation in New Orleans has been cut drastically because of the virus. How can people in these poor communities protect themselves through healthy nutrition if there are no stores nearby and a lengthy bus ride is between them and the healthy food? “Whenever there is a major disaster people of color will always be affected worse,” Karran laments.

Medical Attention Imbalances

Karran is a cancer survivor and is immune suppressed along with having other health risk factors. Her autoimmune disease has caused interstitial lung disease. “I only have 76% of my lung function. If I catch this [coronavirus], I will die.” Her regular care has been interrupted by Covid-19 and one of her prescriptions, is running out before her next appointment. She is not even sure if her next appointment will be followed through because of the virus. Her appointment on March 09 was cancelled.

The prescription that Karran might run out of, interestingly enough, is hydroxychloroquine, the drug being pushed as a possible cure for Coronavirus. Since this medication has started being pushed as a treatment for Covid-19 the FDA has reported a shortage of it.

“We’re middle class, but what if we were low-income?” Karran pointed out that many people in the poor black communities do not have medical insurance and have health issues that they are not aware of or cannot obtain treatment for because of a lack of insurance. “If you are not diagnosed with high blood pressure or diabetes, how do you know you have it? And how do you know how to treat it without the support of a primary care doctor?” High blood pressure and diabetes are two of the conditions that make coronavirus more deadly and run higher in communities of color.

“My [conditions] are treated because I have medical insurance.” Karran said she has known people who will share their blood pressure medicine with others who have been previously diagnosed but later did not have insurance. They would only take half the recommended dose so that their loved one who is not insured can also have half a dose medication.

“My older son is a musician. He doesn’t have medical insurance. He thought he had coronavirus and so went to a drive-through testing location. They asked for a letter from his primary doctor. But without medical insurance he doesn’t have a primary doctor. They suggested he go to an urgent care to get a note. But urgent care facilities are expensive.”

Karran has also recently experienced racism at the doctor’s office during a check up on her immune disease and related pain. She got a new, younger doctor who was working with a resident doctor. While looking at Karran’s chart the training doctor pointed out to the resident, “Look, the dose is too low. This kind of racism happens all the time. We need to adjust the dose.” Karran had heard of this happening to others but did not know it was happening to her.

I asked Karran since this is happening with pain medication, did she think there is a chance that it might be happening with other medications as well? Karran answered that she had not heard of it happening with other medications. However, as I researched I certainly found evidence of people of color not receiving the same medical treatment in general and specifically in relationship with Covid-19. There are stories from Detroit, across the nation, and of course in New Orleans.

Black Americans, as well as other populations of color, are more likely to work on the front lines in careers that are now deemed “essential.” Cashiers, grocery workers, transit drivers, hospital custodial and other hospital support services, manufacturing of certain commodities, utilities workers, delivery services, social services, farm workers, garbage workers, fast food workers, gas station attendants are suddenly considered “essential” personnel. Some of these jobs have low pay and usually do not have paid sick leave. Often these workers will go to work even if they do not feel well. These types of employees are more likely to be penalized for taking a day off. Karran, in reference to people in these professions states, “It spreads easily. These people didn’t do something wrong. They just tried to go to work.”


Because of our shared interest in education, of course this topic came up. It is unreasonable to think in poor communities, and sometimes even in middle-class communities, that parents will have the proper computer equipment, internet access, and time to supervise their children while “schooling” at home. How does a teacher grade a student who cannot access the internet or does not have a computer at home? How can a parent stay with their child to help them login to a lesson when that parent needs to be on the other side of town to go to work?

Karran was a Special Education advocate and I was a Special Education teacher. We discussed how the schools might be providing services to the students with Special Education needs. We concluded that there is a good chance that children with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are not receiving their Special Education contact hours. From my personal experience, the lower the income of a student, the less likely they are to have computer access at home and the more likely they are to have an IEP. Karran’s suggestion is that there could be one on one lessons, either online or in person, for children based on the child’s home situation. Of course, some services can only be delivered in person. And to provide these services in person puts both parties at risk based on social distancing guidelines. Some children will need more support from teachers than others. Plus, all of this is not even a consideration if the child either cannot be reached or is dealing with the stress, fear, and sickness around the virus situation.

According to Karran, schools in New Orleans are each making their own decisions how to handle grading. School busses are going around neighborhoods with teachers riding, waving signs and honking to congratulate the seniors.

As I was talking with Karran about education and looking at the Louisiana Department of Education site, I clicked on the Louisiana Department of Health website. The website started talking to me in a deep, gruff voice. I had to mute it. Karran explained that Louisiana is a Red state and so many people are skeptical about Coronavirus being real. This was making the spread and the danger worse. For example, Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans cancelled the Saint Patrick Day parade. But people still went. The streets were just as full as if there had been a parade. So, the state enlisted beloved LSU football coach Ed Orgeron to do public service announcements. He has a distinctive voice and because the state loves their LSU Tigers, it was felt that he would be able to convince Louisianans to take the virus seriously. “You didn’t have to convince [black people] because everyone knows someone who is sick or has died.” Social distancing is an important factor, which is why the parade was cancelled. Karran shared that at the time of our interview, New Orleans had a grade of A- for social distancing. The rest of the state was at a D. You can also look up your area’s social distancing grade on the website.


The supplies that Karran uses to make masks comes from rummaging through dressers and closets. “I have to delay some gratification because I’m not going to the craft store.” She is recycling old clothes and fabric scraps from previous projects into masks. She found scraps from a shirt that she made for her older son over two decades ago. While rummaging around she also found a picture of him wearing the shirt. The photo has water damage from Katrina. She finds irony in finding the scraps from the shirt and a Katrina-damaged photo of her son wearing it at a time that she will be using the same leftover fabric to make face masks for another tragedy. The masks made from those fabric scraps, along with most of the other masks she is making, will be donated to people who need them. She places them outside on the doorknob for pickup so she can stay safe.

She has done research to learn what the best materials are for mask-making. “For my own peace of mind I want to give the best mask I possibly can to people. I don’t want to give a false sense of security.” All day long Karran sews masks, tracks coronavirus news, and does her best to keep her house germ-free. Making masks gives her a sense of power over the virus which is ravaging her community. Sewing the masks is her way to deal with the stress of her situation while she stays inside her house. “I’m not comfortable leaving the house. I’m a data person. The data needs to show it’s dropped before I go out.”

Endnote: Karran Harper Royal most recently was the Executive Director of the GU272 Descendants Association.

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2 comments on “Voices of Covid-19 Part Two: New Orleans
  1. Rosa Hong says:

    What a beautiful article. Highly informative, compelling, and moving in telling the personal story of someone in particularly difficult circumstances doing her best to cope and help others. Thank you for bringing attention to a facet of this crisis that is often overlooked.

    • Londa Mull says:

      Thank you so much for your support of Mulling it Over! As a small entity, I strive to give others the opportunity to speak who might not have the chance to be otherwise heard. I’m grateful you found Karran’s story captivating.

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