I am from Gretna, Louisiana, a town of 17,000 people, which can be found across the river from New Orleans. In late February, New Orleans held Mardi Gras, a yearly celebration stemming from the city's French Catholic heritage. Thousands came and drank, as usual. Cruise ships from the Caribbean docked and unloaded their passengers - boomers bored with life onshore. Soon after, the cases of the virus began.
Last fall, a new location of the "Hard Rock Hotel," a rock music-themed hotel chain, then under construction downtown, collapsed. Several workers died, and their corpses remained in the open air, half-buried under rubble, for weeks. The worker who had tried to blow the whistle on the building code violations was fired and deported.
Ten years ago, BP's "Deepwater Horizon" oil rig off the Louisiana coast caught on fire, spilling tons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Fisheries were ruined, pelicans suffocated under oil, the fragile swamps died even more quickly than they already had been.
Five years before that, Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, flooding much of New Orleans. The poorer, and predominantly black, neighborhoods of the city were left underwater by local, state, and federal governments. Refugees tried to flee across the river; Gretna police wouldn't let them come down from the bridge. Other police at other bridges shot refugees. Thousands died, all told.
I mentioned these past events in order to give context as to what is happening now. Southern Louisiana is part of another America, one you won't see in the media. It is a colonial extraction-based economy. Large chains come in, take the oil and natural resources, profit from tourist schemes, exploit tax-exempt status offered by politicians desperate for business. Meanwhile, Louisiana has the highest poverty rate in the country. Many lack access to adequate healthcare, many are uninsured.
Gretna is a sort of border town. The border between Trumpland and New Orleans. The mostly white, conservative rural residents, and the often poorer, mostly black residents of the city.
As of today, about 1500 deaths from the novel coronavirus have been confirmed in Louisiana, the majority in New Orleans. More are expected. A neighboring parish, St. John the Baptist, has the highest death rate in the nation. Factories and oil refineries spot the swamps there, spewing out chemicals that residents claim are responsible for the health conditions from which they suffer. The area is called "Cancer Alley." Government officials do nothing to help.
When the crisis first broke, the mayor held a press conference. Now that the city had been shut down, the rats which inhabit it are hungry, run through the streets. She was worried that starving rats would attack the homeless people who huddle in sleeping bags under the interstate downtown, minutes from the high-rises occupied by oil companies, law firms. The homeless people were moved into empty hotel rooms: for a brief moment, our government recognizes the human right to housing, sure to be forgotten as soon as the threat from the disease fades.
Louisiana also has the highest rate of imprisoned people in the country. Until this week, juries could legally imprison people for life without a unanimous vote. Thousands, many non-violent offenders, live in prisons and jails. Some have already died from the virus. Activists warned that unless officials release non-violent offenders, the virus would devastate the imprisoned population, however, very few listen.
Louisiana lies in another America, a dark underbelly of capitalism which you won't see reflected in Hollywood shows about happy suburban families. No one is listening, and our fate is in our own hands.
I walked down to the river the other day. It was higher than I have ever seen it. Water lapped against the top of the levee as if it would push the levee over and waves would wash through the town. Folks walked along the levee, some with children or dogs, eyeing one another suspiciously and from an appropriate distance. The Mississippi River was silent. Normally, it is filled with tugboats, barges, oil tankers, ferries. Instead, it was silent. I sat for a while and imagined the river breaking free of the strictures forced on it, flooding City Hall and overturning oil tankers. After which, I walked home.