funeral attendees watching as a man releases a dove

Detroit’s winning spirit helps it fight back against COVID-19

Jerry Lovett releases a dove after the funeral service for his brother, Chester Lovett, who died of COVID-19 complications at Sinai-Grace Hospital in Detroit. A father of ten children, family members had to rotate in and out during Chester’s funeral service at Wilson-Akins Funeral Home.

Jerry Lovett remembers his brother, a retired U.S. Postal Service mail carrier as a man who loved his family and traveling. "My brother would say, I'll be back in two or three weeks and jump on a Megabus for Georgia or Mississippi or somewhere," said Jerry Lovett. "He lived a good life. He loved his 10 kids and kept them all together."

Photograph by Danny Wilcox Frazier, National Geographic

Each time my phone rings, my heart skips a beat. I’m afraid more bad news awaits me on the other end. I’m not sure when a ringing phone started to trigger panic. Sometime between the time I learned an aunt and uncle were both hospitalized, several weeks ago, and when I learned that complications from the virus had stolen the life of one of my cousins, a dapper gentleman who could make his 3-year-old granddaughter squeal with delight just by walking into the room.

They are three of too many people I know sick at home, hospitalized, or dead because of COVID-19. Detroit, home for most of my life, has been particularly hard hit—just when national media and newcomers had begun to see my city as the rough but precious gem I always knew it to be. It’s a city used to hard knocks, fighting back—and, as I see it, usually winning. An enormous replica of world champion boxer Joe Louis’s fist hangs above a main thoroughfare in the heart of downtown Detroit, a bronze monument to our fighting and winning spirit.

Detroit is the city that put America on the road. General Motors World Headquarters is just east of that Joe Louis fist. GM and other major auto companies, including Ford and FIAT Chrysler, have been the region’s lifeblood. The auto industry lifted many families like mine from poverty into the working-class, if not middle-class. (See where the number of COVID-19 cases are growing and declining.)

During World War II, this industry built vehicles, artillery, and more for the war effort, earning the title the “Arsenal of Democracy.” And now, as it did then, the auto industry has joined the fight against COVID-19, building much-needed ventilators and face masks.

One GM plant—in Warren, a city that borders Detroit—expects to produce up to 50,000 face masks per day. Wayne State University, a major research institution in the heart of the city, has partnered with Ford Motor Company to deploy specially-equipped Lincoln Navigator SUVs to provide mobile testing to first responders and health care workers.

Just west of that symbolic fist monument stands the city’s convention center. It was supposed to bring 800,000 people—and more than 5,000 journalists from at least 60 countries—to the annual North American International Auto Show this June. Instead, the convention center was transformed into a 1,000-bed field hospital for people recovering from COVID-19. The field hospital—which never had more than a couple dozen patients—closed May 7.

If you step out the back door of the convention center, you see a once-desolate waterfront. Now a charming pathway dotted with parks runs along it, a place where people can walk, run, and bike. Across the shimmering blue Detroit River is Canada—a country so close that some 1,600 nurses and other health care workers have been crossing the border daily to work at American hospitals in metro Detroit.

The city fought its way out of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy in 2014. Billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert gave it a major boost with money and ideas that brought new businesses, restaurants, entertainment venues, and people into the city. His investments have been seen as a mixed blessing, particularly by people concerned that revitalization spurred higher rents that have priced out long-time residents and businesses that stayed through the tough times.

But all in all, Detroit, at long last, seemed to be getting its footing.

Then the novel coronavirus knocked the city off its feet again.

The numbers are frightening: As of May 15, there have been 10,259 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Detroit and 1,243 deaths from the virus, according to the City Health Department. The people disproportionately suffering from or stricken by this virus are black, like me. While African Americans make up 14 percent of the state’s population, they represent 41 percent of the deaths. Those numbers caused Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to set up a special task force to try to reduce the health disparities—at the same time that it’s advocating “Stay Home, Stay Safe” orders, and contending with people challenging those orders. (Here's why African Americans are being disproportionately affected by the virus.)

In the depths of the crisis, city hospitals were so crowded that overwhelmed nurses walked out of one of them, Sinai Grace, in frustration. At the same hospital, photos leaked to media showed bodies stacked up in vacant rooms, left in beds, even propped up in a chair. The body of a Detroit firefighter’s mother was lost among them for days.

Too many medical personnel have died trying to heal virus victims. A guy I know who works at a funeral home told me they have so many bodies they’re running out of space to store them. Friends and friends of friends have attended activities that were supposed to be fun—skiing, ballroom dancing, a celebration of police officers—that have turned out to be ports of transmission.

Each life is more than a statistic

My Facebook page is full of photos and tributes and stories and prayers dedicated to my friends’ loved ones who are sick or dead from this virus. And I’m again working for the Detroit Free Press, the newspaper from which I retired three years ago, helping to write obituaries. The newspaper is committed to writing about as many of the victims as possible, a way to help make sure each person’s life story is more than a statistic.

The other day I was asked to write an obituary about a security guard at the Detroit Opera House. To be honest, I approached it dispassionately because I didn’t know Darrin Cato. I was just doing my duty as a reporter: Get the facts, write a nice story about him.

I was fine until his wife told me something that forced me to hold back tears. This man loved to do Slow Roll—the popular weekly bike ride that takes thousands of people through the city by bikes. Suddenly, Darrin Cato was no longer a stranger to me; he was one of my people. I, too, do Slow Roll. I, too, love to bike. He could very well have been one of the many people I’ve laughed and joked with or waved at along the rides. One day he went to the hospital, and a few days later the 53-year-old husband and father was dead.

Cato’s funeral—like too many recent ceremonies—was devoid of the abundance of comfort and care many relatives and friends would have loved to provide. At a time when family and friends ordinarily would have gathered with food and loving arms, people had to stay away. (Will virtual mourning allow us to fully heal?)

Rev. Kenneth Flowers, pastor of Greater New Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, is like a lot of pastors in Detroit right now—encouraging their congregations to keep the faith while family and church members fall victim to the virus. Flowers’ mother, wife, brother-in-law and niece have all been hospitalized due to the virus. He himself recently tested positive, though he hasn’t required hospitalization. Four members of his church have died and one is on a ventilator fighting for his life.

Still, when we spoke, Flowers quoted from scripture and insisted, “This is not the time to lose hope. This is a time to trust God even more. In the midst of all this, we have to remember that God is still on our side.”

I have to admit that my faith wavers when I think about the toll this virus is taking, especially on people who already suffer disproportionately from poor health conditions. The situation becomes even more maddening to me when I see people with semi-automatic rifles, Confederate flags, and anti-Detroit signs loudly protesting the stay-at-home orders at the Michigan state capitol —with their children in tow. The images remind me of photos of lynching in the South in which white mobs, some with children in tow, gleefully cheered as black men and women hung from trees.

Many safety measures not an option

The disparities starkly revealed by COVID-19 are not new.

“Health disparities are the status quo in America,” said public health advocate Debra Furr-Holden, associate dean for Public Health Integration at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine. “African-American people have had disparate health since slave ships brought us to America.”

“They threw half of us overboard because we got sick in those inhumane conditions,” she said. “Then when we got here, we were placed in substandard housing, forced to work long hours in horrendous conditions and provided almost no access to health care. We have historically lacked the very basic things we know impact health, like quality food; stable, quality housing, and gainful employment. Post-slavery we just started inching our way to a system of care. But we have not made up for that gap.”

Some of the basic measures recommended to stay safe are not options for some low-income and working-class people, who tend to be overrepresented among the less-visible categories of “essential workers”—hospital housekeepers, stock clerks at grocery stores, food delivery clerks.

“Staying at home for some of these folks means starving to death,” says Alford Young, Jr., professor of Sociology and Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “They’re doing essential but not high-paid work. There’s no bank account to carry them over. There’s no credit cards. They’re not calling to have food brought in; they’re in fact, making the deliveries. We call on these folks to do the kinds of things that make it easier for the rest of us to stay at home.”

Some 24 percent of African Americans compared to three percent of whites in Southeast Michigan live in concentrated poverty, according to the nonprofit group Detroit Future City. Despite state and city moratoriums on water shutoffs, reports persist of households without water. City officials acknowledge delays, but say that water has been restored in every house in Detroit. Clearly, without water, frequent hand-washing—a top precaution to prevent contracting the virus—is impossible.

Panella Page, 52, a supervisor of housekeeping at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Detroit, has lost numerous family members and friends due to the virus. She has no thoughts of quitting a job that helps feed her and her 14-year-old son.

But she does say it’s scary to report to work “for your purpose and your passion, to get a pay check that you don’t know whether you’ll be around to deposit.” And it’s frustrating, she says, because housekeepers are underappreciated, even though they are essential: “If the hospital is not cleaned properly, even more people will die. I feel like we’re the first line of defense.”

For low-income and working-class people who live in high density neighborhoods, often in smaller houses with less space and more people, even social distancing is a challenge. The other day on a television program, a health professional suggested that when people self-quarantine at home, they should use separate bathrooms—seemingly oblivious to the fact that houses with more than one bathroom are a luxury many people cannot afford.

“I don’t know how you teach ballroom without touching hands”

COVID-19 caught many working-class African-Americans off guard in the groups where they gather.

Hundreds of Detroiters ballroom dance. Regulars can be found on the dance floor of a club almost every day of the week.

The people who dance together “are like a family,’’ said Yolanda Herbert, a retired Detroit school principal. In March, she posted headshots of 14 regulars who’d been killed by the virus. Since then, six more have passed.

At one of the dance spots, Club Yesterday’s in Redford, where hundreds gathered Tuesday afternoons for daytime dancing, people had their preferred seats at tables or the bar. “Right now I can envision where everybody sat,” Herbert said. “I can go around the room and see where whole tables of people have died.”

She remembers calling a fellow dancer to tell him another ballroom friend had died. The man she called answered his cell phone from his hospital bed. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him why I’d originally called,” she said. That friend has since been released from the hospital and is recovering.

Calvin “Mr. Smooth” Sibert is one of metro Detroit’s most popular dance instructors. He didn’t want to talk to me about COVID-19 and Detroit’s ballroom community at all, for fear that news reports about the large numbers of dancers who’ve become sick or died will destroy the places where dancers gather.

“If things open up, I don’t know if there’s going to be a Mr. Smooth again,” Sibert said. “I don’t know how you teach ballroom without touching hands.”

COVID-19 also struck his family. His 89-year-old mother, Ruth Catherine Sibert, died April 3, a few days after being admitted to Receiving Hospital in Detroit. The worst part was not getting to see her to say goodbye: “We couldn’t go in and check on her,” he said. “We had to trust they were taking good care of her. All I got is pictures now.”

Another Detroit community that’s been hithard is the Jim Dandy Ski Club, a part of the National Brotherhood of Skiers. Hundreds of skiers from all over the country—including 60 from Detroit—joyfully descended on a ski resort in Sun Valley, Idaho, for the annual Black Ski Summit, Feb. 29 thru March 7.

Jim Dandy Ski Club President Janice Jackson said she’d heard about the virus before leaving Detroit for Sun Valley, but didn’t see it as an imminent threat. “I thought it was something that was somewhere else. Since we were going to Idaho, I figured we’d be isolated from it.”

After the ski club returned home, 40 of the 60 members, including Jackson, became ill with COVID-19 symptoms. She self-quarantined and did not have to be hospitalized. None of the Jim Dandy Ski Club members has died but four people from the national organization have. “Had we known then what we know now, we would have cancelled the trip.”

Long-term commitment needed to address health disparities

Despite the challenges there are signs of hope. The rate of infection in the state and city is slowing, primarily due to actions taken by residents and city and state leaders. Detroit was first in the state to offer testing for essential workers, even those without a test prescription.

Detroit was the first in the country to offer rapid (15-minute) testing to all first responders. The city is on track to test all residents of nursing homes. In the U.S. and around the world, senior citizens’ homes have been hit particularly hard.

In late March, the state’s first Detroit-area drive-through testing site opened, on the property that formerly housed the Michigan State Fair. Residents can get $2 cab rides between their homes and the drive-through testing location.

Ending the health inequities laid bare during this pandemic will require a long-term commitment that addresses social and economic determinants of health.

Michigan’s Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist, who heads a task force charged with reducing those disparities, said those are its two goals: to address the immediate threat and also devise long-term solutions. A Detroiter himself, Gilchrist has lost 16 family members to COVID-19.

The task force will be named in honor of Skylar Herbert, who at 5 years old became the youngest Michigander killed by the virus. Her parents are first responders—her mother, LaVondria, a Detroit police officer; her father, Ebbie, a Detroit firefighter.

The task force will not be the run-of-the-mill kind that studies a problem and makes a report, Gilchrist said: “We need to have actions and interventions on the street right now.” One of the group’s first actions was to make testing available to people who stay on the job through the pandemic, even if they show no symptoms. That includes many people of color, who tend to be overrepresented in fields where “the very nature of their jobs puts their families at higher risk,” Gilchrist said. Among those jobs: bus drivers, nurses’ aides, and hospital housekeepers.

Gilchrist says he’s encouraged by the way state and city leaders, big and small businesses, educational institutions and individual citizens have come together to respond to the pandemic: making masks and ventilators, providing transportation to testing sites or take testing to people, distributing food—and, for the most part, following stay-safe practices.

Recently, private and public entities joined forces to help close the digital divide that has left thousands of Detroit children without the means to continue their educations while schools are closed. DTE Energy, Quicken Loans, General Motors, and the Skillman and Kellogg foundations raised $23 million so that, come June, more than 50,000 Detroit students will have new laptops and free internet access to facilitate online learning.

Gilchrist knows there’s an uphill battle ahead. The city was sucker-punched by a virus that has left thousands of people unemployed and closed numerous businesses—especially black-owned businesses that were just beginning to sprout up in Detroit neighborhoods. (Watch how a black-owned non-profit transforms vacant lots in Detroit.)

Still, Gilchrist remains optimistic. “The irony of social distancing is that we’re going to remember this as a time when we actually came together,” he says. “And we actually understood how connected we are, and understood the necessity to think about one another when we take actions. That is the morning that comes after this stormy night.”

Cassandra Spratling is a Detroit Free Press veteran. Since this article was written, her uncle has passed away due to COVID-19 complications.

Documentary photographer and filmmaker, Danny Wilcox Frazier, focuses his work on marginalized communities both in and outside of the United States. Frazier has spent nearly two decades documenting people struggling to survive the economic shift that has devastated rural communities throughout America, including in his home state of Iowa. His work acknowledges isolation and neglect, while also celebrating perseverance and strength. To see more of his work, follow him on Instagram.

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