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Smallest caseload to biggest death toll: Coronavirus decimates D.C.’s poorest ward

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/2/2020 Paul Schwartzman
a group of people wearing costumes: Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8), center with blue mask, greets constituents while helping Martha's Table to hand out food in Washington in mid-April. © Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8), center with blue mask, greets constituents while helping Martha's Table to hand out food in Washington in mid-April.

Outside a Southeast Washington carryout, D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. and a team of masked volunteers handed out toilet paper, tomatoes, apples, pasta, and cans of black beans.

White, 35, is accustomed to the gun violence that has long defined the neighborhoods he represents. But now his constituents are facing a new crisis — a “monster,” as he describes the novel coronavirus, which is battering his council district more than any other in the city.

The day before, he announced that his coronavirus-infected grandmother had died. Now, when a television reporter pressed for details about her life, White cut him off, insisting that his family’s struggles were nothing special.

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“We’ve been suffering from people dying in Ward 8 for the last 30, 40 years,” he fumed, listing the reasons: diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, suicide, homicide. “It’s always people of color dying in the city. It’s not nothing new.” 

For decades, the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River — a stretch encompassing the poorest and most heavily African American population in the nation’s capital — have contended with an array of seemingly intractable challenges that include unemployment, violent crime, and drug addiction.

The coronavirus has added a new layer of lethal pain.

As of Friday, White’s ward, which is 89 percent black, had the District’s highest per capita rate of coronavirus-related deaths — six for every 10,000 residents — more evidence that the virus is disproportionately harming African Americans.

From mid-April to month’s end, the number of positive cases in Ward 8 more than doubled, from 259 to 677, far outdistancing more prosperous and predominantly white areas such as Georgetown and Dupont Circle. There were 51 deaths attributed to covid-19 as of Thursday, 21 more than any other ward.

a close up of text on a white background: Covid-19 deaths in the district © The Washington Post Covid-19 deaths in the district

As a council member, White (D) is known more for street activism and showing up at crime scenes than for policy proposals. He is often compared to the late D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who also represented the ward, though White delivers his populist touch on social media as well as in person.

Unlike his political peers, White can still be found out and about despite the pandemic. Wearing a mask emblazoned with his name, he delivers meals to senior citizens, hands out protective equipment and toilet paper, and helps distribute groceries. 

“ ‘You don’t deliver food by phone’ — I want you to get that quote,” he said, repeating the line for emphasis one afternoon as he dropped off dinners at a public housing complex. 

White, who is seeking a second term and faces three opponents in the June Democratic primary, said it has been difficult persuading constituents to heed public health warnings and take precautions.

Four weeks after the stay-at-home order by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), groups still linger outside stores and on corners along busy thoroughfares.

“First, it was something from China, something overseas, something black people don’t get, something young people don’t get,” White said, listing the excuses he has heard for ignoring the virus’s danger. When he urges people to disperse, he said, “They go off and they come right back.”

Similar frustration exists in cities such as Atlanta, where the mayor enlisted hip-hop artists to help spread the word about the virus’s dangers. Heath officials in Baltimore are designing an ad campaign to debunk Internet chatter that the virus is not affecting the black community.

By mid-April, White said he knew 11 people who had tested positive for the coronavirus. Two weeks later, the number was 24.

On April 19, he posted on Instagram that Veronica Norman, 76, his grandmother, had died. Her family had urged her to retire from the nursing job she held for 40 years at St. Elizabeths Hospital.

She kept working until her last days.

The coroner, White wrote, declined to transport her body to a funeral home “because it [was] a COVID-19 case.”

“This broke us down even more.”

a person standing in front of a store: A group passes by an optimistic sign in the window of Busboys & Poets on Martin Luther King Avenue SE in Ward 8. © Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post A group passes by an optimistic sign in the window of Busboys & Poets on Martin Luther King Avenue SE in Ward 8.

Depression and desperation

On April 2, as White joined Bowser to announce a new testing site in his ward at the United Medical Center, he was asked about the 44 positive cases in Ward 8. At the time, the caseload was the city’s lowest.

Many of his constituents hadn’t been tested, White said, and “don’t know where to go for testing.”

Throughout the month, cases and deaths in the ward grew much faster than for the city as whole, reaching 677 on Thursday.

The pandemic has exacerbated the ward’s socioeconomic challenges, including an 11 percent unemployment rate as of February, the highest in the city. As the health crisis deepened, people lost restaurant and service jobs. Others were forced to work at home, often in cramped apartments, alongside children navigating school online.

The volume of after-hours calls to the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, a Ward 8-based outreach group, shot from seven to 100 a month, said Dionne Bussey-Reeder, the executive director.

“I have families calling because they’re literally losing their minds,” she said. “People looking for food, for testing. They’re breaking emotionally.”

The desperation is evident at the food giveaways. World Central Kitchen distributes 1,000 dinners daily to senior citizens. Martha’s Table, which normally passes out 250 bags of groceries every week in the ward, is giving away 4,000, said Charles Gussom Jr., an organizer.

“Most of our focus is usually on stopping violence and helping people get jobs,” said Derek Floyd, a community activist and hip-hop artist who was distributing food one recent afternoon. “Now it’s about keeping the desperation at bay as much as we can. It’s about the basics — food, masks and gloves.”

a sign on a pole on a city street: The intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road in Ward 8 on Friday. © Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post The intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road in Ward 8 on Friday.

As he traverses the ward, dreadlocks falling down his back, White describes himself as a one-man “social services office.” He is known for his relentless activism and nexus of relationships, which helped him defeat a Bowser-backed opponent in 2016.

Two years later, White was widely rebuked and accused of anti-Semitism after posting a Facebook video in which he espoused a conspiracy theory that the Rothschilds, a Jewish banking family, controlled the weather. White later apologized for his remarks.

Now he finds himself contending with another kind of maelstrom, one that poses new threats to already beleaguered constituents who want to know when schools will reopen, where they can get tested, how they can get unemployment insurance, and when the crisis will end.

Friends urge him to take precautions, fearful that his street outreach is putting his 9-month-old daughter and 11-year-old son in jeopardy. Yet, for better or worse, he has more of an on-the-ground political brand than a behind-a-desk one.

“Happy corona day,” Pepi Miller, 52, a laid-off welder, said as White passed out groceries the other day from the back of a van in Anacostia. “I have no money, but look at the bright side: I’m not dead.”

White eyed the gathering crowd.

Down the street, more people — most unmasked and in small groups — waited outside a tattered laundromat for the van’s next stop.

“Social distancing, man!” the council member warned. “Social distancing!”

a person standing in front of a truck: Taheem Tanner, a volunteer with Martha's Table, opens the doors to a van full of food packages for distribution in Ward 8. © Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post Taheem Tanner, a volunteer with Martha's Table, opens the doors to a van full of food packages for distribution in Ward 8.

Populism and social media

On March 31, as an aide broadcast on Instagram, White emerged from his BMW outside the D.C. jail wearing latex gloves, a face mask and a hooded, splash-resistant white suit a friend had bought at Home Depot.

He was taking a tour, he told his 22,000 viewers, after receiving complaints about conditions inside the facility, where several inmates had tested positive for the virus. “We can’t bring the camera into the jail,” White told his audience. “But know that I’m on the job.”

A couple of days later, White broadcast live to focus attention on conditions at a juvenile detention center and at Hope Village, a halfway house where residents alleged an unsafe, unsanitary environment. Two people died at Hope Village in early April, though prison officials said the deaths were not virus-related.

Mike Austin, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who is among White’s three primary opponents, dismissed the council member’s advocacy and food deliveries as campaign-style theatrics. The other candidates are Stuart Anderson and attorney Yaida Ford.

“We don’t need just an activist, we need a legislator,” Austin said. “We need someone who can use the power of his office to figure these things out.”

White said he spends the bulk of his days focusing on the pandemic and that he has been advocating for his community for 17 years. Now is no different, he said. But he and his supporters also post photos and video of him distributing food and promote his campaign on social media under an #imwithtray hashtag.

Pam Bryant, a retired teacher who lives in Congress Heights, said she was infuriated when White knocked on her door on Palm Sunday to give her campaign leaflets.

“He didn’t step back or try to distance himself,” Bryant said. “He had a mask on but had pulled it down. I told him, ‘You’re too close.’ I told him to put the campaign materials on the floor and I closed the door.”

White said he did not recall the encounter.

a group of people wearing costumes: D.C. Council member Trayon White greets a friend with an elbow bump while out and about with Martha's Table in Ward 8. © Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post D.C. Council member Trayon White greets a friend with an elbow bump while out and about with Martha's Table in Ward 8.

His supporters praise him for remaining visible when elected officials, including the mayor, limit their public appearances to briefings and virtual town halls.

“We love Trayon,” Beverly Johnson said as he delivered dinners at Roundtree Residences recently. “I said, ‘There goes Marion Barry’s protege!’ ”

A couple of hours later, White appeared on a friend’s Instagram live broadcast. The topic of discussion was anxiety and depression.

“There are a lot of people who may lose their jobs, their career, their house, their apartment and some people might lose their minds,” White said.

He urged the audience to learn about the coronavirus and get tested. “Just because you don’t believe in it doesn’t mean it’s not real,” he warned.

He turned his head to cough. He laughed and then coughed again, before reassuring his audience that he had been tested for the virus twice already.

“I pray to God I’m still negative,” the council member said before signing off.

John D. Harden contributed to this report.

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