On the Saturday after Mardi Gras, Rechell Cook flew to Atlanta for a show. She’s a singer and a hairdresser and had a few gigs to play. But when she got off the plane she got the chills. Then the aches and pains started.
She canceled all of the shows and headed home to New Orleans East. When the fever persisted and pain continued, she went to the emergency room at Slidell Memorial, where she says she was told that she had double pneumonia. Eventually, they tested her for COVID-19 and the test returned positive. She was one of the first known cases in the state.
“I was devastated, I was scared. I was by myself, I didn’t have any family with me,” she said. “I really thought I was going to die.”
But she got lucky, recovering within a week and being able to return home. She had to quarantine for two weeks, sending her aunt, who has multiple sclerosis, her 26-year-old daughter and 1-year-old granddaughter to stay with a neighbor. Her daughter would bring her granddaughter to visit through the window.
“I would play with her through the glass and sing. We have a routine. She would be okay for a few minutes,” Cook said, “and then after that she would be frustrated because I couldn’t hold her, I couldn’t touch her.”
Cook rents a family home on Endeavour Court, a little cul-de-sac off of far-flung Michoud Boulevard. Oak Island subdivision is like an island in the swamp. On one side, the old Six Flags amusement park deteriorates, with a sign that still reads “Closed for storm.” On the other side, a long, empty road connects Michoud to Interstate 10. It’s lined with tires, toilets and trash.
Cook likes living in the subdivision because it’s quiet and a good place to raise her granddaughter. But she has to drive for miles to get to a grocery store or a restaurant. She says it’s inconvenient, but it’s where she’s from, and she likes living here with her family because it’s quiet and she knows her neighbors.
She loved growing up in the East. As a teenager, she spent a lot of time hanging out at Lake Forest Plaza shopping mall, known as The Plaza. There was a roller rink, a food court, even an indoor skating rink. She lived just off of Chef Menteur Highway. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, New Orleans East was booming. As the city expanded, the low-lying, swampy area promised space and opportunity. Black families moved there en masse, and services like grocery stores, malls and jobs followed.
But the growth stalled and the far-flung, sprawling region started suffering from disinvestment and white flight. Crime and blight followed. After Hurricane Katrina hit, many businesses never reopened. Hotels, schools and stores shuttered. Now, residents complain about feeling forgotten.
That feeling hasn’t subsided as a pandemic sweeps the world.
coronavirus has taken a hefty toll on the working-class east
New Orleans East is one of the areas of the country hit hardest by COVID-19, with more than one in 50 residents testing positive for coronavirus. In fact, the infection rate is four times higher here than in the rest of Louisiana, according to an analysis of state health data by WWNO/WRKF.
Despite the citywide shutdown caused by COVID-19, life in the East has continued. People wait in a long, socially-distanced line to pick up crawfish and seafood at Castnet Seafood on Hayne Boulevard. Moms and aunties help children hold their sno-balls upright as they melt in the early summer heat. Teenagers hang out outside gas stations. A couple sells hand sanitizer and CDs from the back of their car, music blasting, in a dollar store parking lot.
Meanwhile, cars line up early on the I-10 service road to pick up boxes of food from Giving Hope Food Pantry. And for several days the parking lot of the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church filled up as people lined up for free testing at the city’s mobile testing site.
Everyone seems to have a story about COVID-19 — they’d lost an uncle, a sister, a brother, or had been sick themselves. Many people did not want to talk about their harrowing experiences.
Kevin Cheneau picked up a bag of seafood for lunch from Castnet, and brought it home to his family in their little brick house on Heather Court, a quiet dead-end in Little Woods. They live in one of the census tracts with the highest rates of infection in the state. Standing under the shade of a big oak tree in his well-kept yard on a recent afternoon, he said he felt officials weren’t prepared for the outbreak.
“It seems like we were kind of caught off guard, with not enough supplies of this, that and the other,” he said.
Like many in the east, Cheneau commutes downtown to work in hospitality. He has worked as a bell captain at Le Méridien for nearly 20 years in order to buy this house with his wife and raise their two kids, who still live with them. They survived Katrina and rebuilt in the same place. Now he and the kids are unemployed.
Cheneau has lost several family members and at least six friends.
local doctors, advocates and representatives say the neighborhood needs more help
Dr. Beverly Wright, director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ), says not enough is being done.
“Our low-wage working population in New Orleans East has really been hit hard by this COVID-19 virus,” she said.
Wright lives in a nice community on Willow Drive, off of Morrison Road. She said she has seen the area deteriorate over the years.
Since Hurricane Katrina, more and more low-wage workers have been priced out of the city core and moved to New Orleans East, where rent is cheaper.
It’s a vulnerable population — predominantly black and skewing lower-income, with many essential workers who need to ride the bus to their jobs as grocery clerks, nurses or pharmacists. Many, like Cook, come home to multi-generational households, with family members who are older or have preexisting conditions that put them at greater danger if they’re exposed to the coronavirus.
Wright said that driving around her neighborhood is heartbreaking.
“I see people walking to the gas station to get groceries with no masks,” she said.” I see people crowded in the bus shelters.”
The most upsetting part, she added, is that “they look like me.”
The DSCEJ advocates for climate and economic justice in the Gulf South. But recently, Wright said, they’re using a federal grant to work on an outreach effort to educate essential workers on necessary safety measures.
New Orleans East Hospital has tested more than 1,000 people. CEO Takeisha Davis said the need is dire and that the state should prioritize vulnerable populations by giving them first- access to testing and providing free protective equipment for essential workers.
“I do applaud our elected officials for the things that they have done to bring resources to New Orleans East. But if we really are going to create an equitable recovery, then we need to go to the places where there is more need,” she said.
A native of the East herself, Davis is on Gov. John Bel Edwards’ COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, which is looking into why a disproportionate number of black people are dying.
“We’ve been under-resourcing and undervaluing those who we are currently deeming ‘essential’ for many, many years, ” Davis said.
Now, she’s hoping “that we actually start to value their lives, not just the work that they do.”
Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen is handing out nearly 30,000 donated face masks, but the population of the East is twice that. The councilwoman has also been delivering food and organizing food banks and online events, like a mother’s day concert.
DSCEJ director Wright says it is still not enough:
“Until we absolutely begin investigating the causes of this and start to make changes, this will never end.”
She likened the disporportionate number of black deaths to a form of genocide, in that hundreds of years of systemic inequities have lead to high rates of poverty, pre-exisitng conditions, lack of access to health care, and lack of access to healthy food and resources.
Wright hopes the crisis is a wake-up call for politicians — that black Americans need better health care, better access to healthy food, and living wages.
“I don’t think enough is being done at all”
Cook, for now, is receiving unemployment.
She’s back on her feet and played her first online show a few weeks ago, but has no idea when she’ll have work again and worries about what her future holds.
“Do I need to get another job?” she said. “All I’ve ever done was be a hairdresser and a singer. I don’t know how to do anything else. I’m not the most computer-literate person, so what do you do?”
She’s lost more than 20 friends and family members, including her uncle, whose funeral she was busy organizing last week.
“I had to stop looking at Facebook because it just looks like an obituary… one after another after another after another,” she said. “I don’t think enough is being done at all.”