Families of coronavirus victims are organizing online to push politicians for more strict health measures

Angela Kender saw it just before bed, and right then made a plan to confront her state’s lawmakers with pictures of local virus victims, including her mother. An old friend sent it to Fiana Tulip. She was furious about her mom’s death; maybe she could channel her rage like Urquiza had. And Rosemary Rangel Gutierrez’s sisters told her about the obituary after their father died. She sounds like you, they said.

“This man is the most dangerous person on the planet,” Urquiza said this week after Trump told Americans on video not to be afraid of covid-19. “I’m counting down the minutes until his referendum comes on November 3rd and we can end this nightmare and protect ourselves and our families.”

The loose support group Urquiza formed has tightened into organized activism. They have pushed politicians, especially Republicans, to enact more serious public health measures. This week, across the country, they have led vigils, memorials and funeral processions to grieve the more than 213,000 lives lost in the United States. The national week of mourning is likely the largest collective recognition of the country’s coronavirus toll.

Powerful grass-roots groups often have started this way, even before the days of organizing through social media. They began with personal anguish, with individuals grieving their dead alone, trying to transform their anger into action, policy or change. It’s the story of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, of the Sandy Hook Promise and Never Again MSD, of Black Lives Matter and Mothers of the Movement.

Urquiza named her group Marked by Covid. She founded it in the days after her father died, with some of his last words to her reverberating. He said he felt betrayed by Arizona’s governor and Trump, politicians he once supported. Urquiza, 39 and a recent graduate of a master’s program in public policy, decided then she would be the voice of a constituency that grows larger by the day: Americans who have lost loved ones to the pandemic and who are fed up with their elected officials.

“I hope that my small actions can start a movement,” she said in July, less than two weeks after her dad died.

It’s too early to know how influential the group, or others like it, will become. Some of Urquiza’s fellow organizers joined her as a way to process loss, and it’s unclear how Marked by Covid will define itself when the pandemic ends. But part of Urquiza’s ambitious vision is to advocate for policies that address the racial and economic inequalities exacerbated by the virus.

Urquiza and Marked by Covid have attracted national attention and more than 50,000 followers across their social media accounts. More than 1,000 people have donated $30,000 to the group, Urquiza said, and they’re using the money to place more honest obituaries online and in newspapers.

The Joe Biden campaign has taken notice. Urquiza spoke at the Democratic National Convention in August, appears in anti-Trump ads and sat in the front row at the first presidential debate, as Biden’s guest. She and her group have advocated for mask mandates and for a nationwide, data-driven response to the pandemic.

The network is made up of people still grieving as they organize get-out-the-vote campaigns, hold demonstrations and call out policy decisions in withering obituaries and editorials.

“We’re there,” she said in August. “It’s a movement.”

Less visible is how she and her new comrades got to this point, the moments of private agony that fuel them.

‘A storm full of lightning and thunder’

It was mid-May, mid-pandemic and Arizona was reporting more new cases of the coronavirus every day. Urquiza was pleading with her father.

Yes, she said, exasperated on the phone, Gov. Doug Ducey had just let his stay-at-home order expire, but, no, that didn’t mean it was suddenly safe to go out.

But Mark Anthony Urquiza, “Black Jack” to friends and family, had a ready reply: If it’s not safe, then why is the governor telling us it’s okay to go shopping, to go out to eat?

Her father trusted his state’s Republican leader, and he trusted Trump, too; he had voted for them both.

A gregarious man and karaoke enthusiast, he was eager to join his friends at a bar near his home in Phoenix. Around the same time, Ducey gave an interview to a local radio station.

“I want to encourage people to get out and about, to take a loved one to dinner, to go retail shopping,” Ducey said. “If you don’t have an underlying health condition, it’s safe out there.”

Two weeks later, the coughing started. On June 16, Urquiza’s father went to the hospital and tested positive. Over the next 10 days, he reassured his daughter that he’d be fine, sending her photos of his hospital food and GIFs of a person jogging.

“This will be me,” the onetime high school track star wrote. “I’m going to get out of this.”

Then the messages stopped. In intensive care, he was put on a ventilator. Four days later, Mark Urquiza died. He was 65.

The Mexican American son of migrant farmworkers, Mark Urquiza was born and raised in Arizona and worked in the fields as a kid. He was a fierce patriot, his daughter said, who admired Trump for his business acumen and his fiscal policies. During the pandemic, when Urquiza’s manufacturing job was deemed essential, he was proud to go to work and support the stumbling economy.

As Urquiza watched him struggle against the virus on video chat, from her house in San Francisco more than 600 miles away, she felt her rage building. She thought of Arizona’s expired stay-at-home order and the lack of a mask mandate. She remembered one of the last texts her dad sent her: “I feel sideswiped,” he wrote about his support of Trump and Ducey.

“My dad thought he was doing the right thing and he was shortly thereafter in the hospital fighting for his life,” Urquiza said. “His government failed him and is failing us.”

The grief came at her in powerful waves. When they began to recede, her fury remained.

“I feel like a storm full of lightning and thunder that is ready to come pouring down on the Arizona desert,” she said.

Less than two months later, Urquiza was at the Democratic convention, delivering a scathing address.

“Thank you Kristin Urquiza for that incredible speech tonight,” commented one member of a Facebook group for bereaved loved ones. Another wrote: “She spoke for so many of us!”

‘See what is being lost’

Following along from St. Louis, Kender saw Urquiza amplify a message she had tried to spread in Missouri: People are dying, and our leaders aren’t doing enough.

Kender, whose mother died of the virus in June, traveled to the statehouse in August to meet the lawmakers gathering for a special session. They weren’t there to talk about the pandemic, or the nearly 1,500 Missourians it had by then killed, but Kender wanted to make sure they couldn’t ignore it.

Standing inthe Jefferson City capitol, Kender unfurled a banner covered in the faces of state residents whose deaths she said were preventable. Among them: Gaye Griffin-Snyder, Kender’s mom, who was infected during an outbreak at her nursing home.

“Covid families have had enough,” she said then, addressing the Republican-dominated legislature and Gov. Mike Parson, who has refused to adopt a statewide mask mandate. “I want you to see what is being lost,” Kender, 35, said. ”These are not just numbers, these are humans of all ages, of all levels of health. See these faces, recognize this could be your face and do something to protect us.”

Griffin-Snyder grew up in a deeply conservative home but joined the civil rights movement in the 1960s. She later became a professional counselor.

Multiple sclerosis forced her into a nursing home when she was just 69. Two years later, after the coronavirus invaded, Kender found herself channeling her mother’s willingness to speak out.

“This is not who I am,” Kender said, “but this is who I am becoming.”

She plans to advocate for people who survived covid-19 but who may suffer its effects for the rest of their lives, and for the legions of health-care workers saddled with the trauma of serving on the pandemic’s front lines.

Since Griffin-Snyder died June 6, new coronavirus cases in Missouri have soared from about 200 a day then to more than 1,300 in recent weeks. Kender has watched the numbers rise, waiting for Parson to require masks. Even after contracting the virus himself in September, Parson did not require masks.

“I’m going to continue speaking,” she said. “I’m going to continue doing everything I can to bring attention to the horrible choices being made.”

‘Like she would have done’

Tulip’s mother died in Dallas on the Fourth of July, one of her family’s favorite holidays. That day, with fireworks crackling around her house in Brooklyn, Tulip began thinking of freedom.

Freedom was the right that anti-mask activists claimed they were exercising when they refused to cover their faces. But it was this idea of freedom, Tulip thought, that accelerated the spread of the coronavirus, that propelled it into the rehab clinic where Isabelle Papadimitriou was a respiratory therapist, that led to it sickening and killing her.

“I got angry so fast,” Tulip said. “I couldn’t cry anymore. I started writing.”

She took to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, scouring her timelines for people posting memes about the ineffectiveness of masks or conspiracy theories about the country’s death toll.

“Your decision killed my mother,” she wrote to one man, who had said that leaders pushing for social distancing measures “want this nation to be sheep” and he would “choose to die free.”

“Enjoy your freedom,” Tulip replied.

It felt, she said, like a frenetic crusade.

“I think I was trying to save my mom because I couldn’t accept that she was gone,” Tulip said. “I had to reconcile that I wasn’t saving my mom; I was saving others — like she would have done.”

Once a bank teller, Papadimitriou, 64, switched careers in her 30s because she wanted to help people breathe. She was healthy and working when she was infected, but in a matter of days, she was treating herself at home and struggling for air. She died a week after she recognized her symptoms.

When a friend sent Tulip the obituary that Urquiza had written, she saw a way to focus her energy. She wanted to address Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who didn’t mandate face coverings until July 2 and whose administration she blamed for the growing number of virus deaths.

The two women started messaging on Facebook.

“The way you’ve been sharing your dad’s story is beautiful,” Tulip wrote. “Only hope I can do the same for my mom.”

“I can’t tell you how much it means to me to know that what I’m doing is helping you,” Urquiza replied. “Sending energy your way. We are not alone. And we will not allow them to be numbers.”

They agreed to work together, and Tulip soon published her own “honest obituary” that criticized the “carelessness of politicians who undervalue healthcare workers.”

Tulip, 40, and her husband were both laid off during the pandemic, and she spends her days caring for her young daughter, working with Marked by Covid and pushing for a memorial to virus victims in Brooklyn. She recently started working with Beat Abbott, a group raising money for the governor’s eventual challenger in 2022, and she has taken her activism to TikTok, where one video has been viewed more than 200,000 times.

“I hate that my mom’s death is political,” Tulip said. “But it is.”

‘A voice that I haven’t had before’

Juan Carlos Rangel and his wife, Rosa, went to one of Brownsville’s free coronavirus testing sites in June. Their daughter Rosemary Rangel Gutierrez told them they might have to wait in line, so they showed up before dawn. They knew they needed a test; another daughter at home had tested positive.

But they were turned away. Too many people, not enough tests.

Looking back at that moment, Gutierrez, who lives four hours north in San Antonio, now sees an ominous sign of what was to come for Brownsville and the surrounding Rio Grande Valley.

There were too many sick people, not enough resources, and running through it all, Gutierrez believed, was the state government’s neglect of a community that is overwhelmingly Hispanic.

“There’s no way he can deny knowing the health demographics of the valley,” Gutierrez said of Abbott, who is a Republican. “It seems like neglect to not have enough testing, to not have enough hospital staff.”

By the time Gutierrez’s parents tested positive, her sister’s condition had deteriorated. She passed out at home, gasping for air. Rangel rushed her to the hospital. Three days later, he was hospitalized, too.

The facility was overwhelmed. Gutierrez’s family was in the middle of a burgeoning national virus hot spot. Gutierrez’s sister was released on July 1, but Rangel was still struggling. By Gutierrez’s 33rd birthday a week later, Rangel couldn’t get enough air to sing “Happy Birthday” with his daughter. Instead, she taught him sign language.

“I love you,” he signed to her on video chat.

Two days later, his heart stopped as doctors tried to intubate him. On July 12, his kidneys began to fail. Gutierrez said goodbye to her father on WhatsApp. Two hours later, he died. Rangel was 60 years old.

Rangel loved to fish, metal detect, build and tinker. He taught Gutierrez to weld and inspired her to become a mechanical engineer. He was one of more than 2,500 Texans to die before Abbott issued a mask mandate.

“I saw that as he was willing to sacrifice 2,500 people before taking action,” Gutierrez said.

When sisters pointed out what Urquiza was doing, the two women connected. Urquiza introduced her to Tulip, and the three felt an immediate kinship.

“It’s a little odd,” Gutierrez said. “You meet people because you lost someone, and you’re trying to make a difference in the world. At the same time, we’re all grieving and we have anxieties about it, but we’re pushing through, and we won’t be silenced.”

Gutierrez wrote Marked by Covid’s third honest obituary, criticizing the president and the Texas governor.

“Trump and Abbott lose no sleep while people of color, unable to breathe, are suffocated by the virus each and every day,” Gutierrez wrote.

The virus has killed more than 16,000 people in Texas, the third highest total in the country. Hispanics account for 55 percent of those fatalities but make up 40 percent of the state’s population — a disparity that persists nationwide.

“I care about the people of the valley. I care about the Hispanic community. And as long as we’re disproportionately affected, I need to be raising my voice,” Gutierrez said. “The honest obituary has given me a voice that I haven’t had before.”

She said she intends to be a watchdog, tracking the allocation of government pandemic relief resources to the Rio Grande Valley.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Gutierrez said. “This is a human issue.”

‘A seat at the table’

Urquiza and her partner, Christine Keeves, are still shaping the future of Marked by Covid. They’re looking ahead, to a time when response becomes recovery, and they want to ensure that the people the pandemic has most affected play a role in shaping those policies.

“I want us to have a seat at the table,” Urquiza said.

She wants her group to represent families of the fallen, front-line workers and those who survived the disease but may never fully recover. The country needs to take care of them, she said, and Marked by Covid will help ensure that happens, just as activists drove Congress to finance the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

But in the short term, Urquiza said she’ll continue working with people like Kender, Tulip and Gutierrez. She recently volunteered to be a surrogate for the Biden campaign and has partnered with a liberal health-care advocacy group in the lead-up to the election.

Then, after Nov. 3, she’ll go home. She’ll spend the holidays in Arizona with her mother, doing all the stuff she’s put on hold: sort through her dad’s things, reminisce, laugh, cry and grieve.

There hasn’t been much time for any of that, and there haven’t been many places Urquiza can go to escape the pandemic and her packed schedule. But recently, she walked from the home she shares with Keeves through San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park until it opened onto the AIDS Memorial Grove. Cairns and inscriptions, ferns and dogwoods remember those lost in that last great public health disaster.

She lingered, watching other visitors come and go.

Some day, she thought, there’ll be a place like this for her.

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