“If I had the money, I would have written an obituary exactly like this one for my Dad,” read one of the first responses to a stranger’s tweet of my father’s obituary. The original tweet said: “Powerful obituary in today’s Arizona Republic. Regular people are starting to boil over.”
On June 30 my father, Mark Urquiza, died from COVID-19. When I placed his obituary a few days later, there was no question for me that it would be anything but honest: He died due to the carelessness of politicians who continue, to this day, to jeopardize the health of brown people (as well as Black, Indigenous, and other people of color) through clear lack of leadership, refusal to acknowledge the severity of this pandemic, and inability and unwillingness to give clear and decisive direction on how to minimize risk.
Little did I know that the words I chose, with the help of my partner Christine and friend Renée, would be the first #HonestObit of many in response to the United States’ COVID-19 mismanagement.
In late June, cases were starting to skyrocket in places like Florida, Texas and my home state of Arizona. My parents still lived in the house I grew up in, located in the Maryvale neighborhood, which is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Phoenix with more than 75% of the population of Latin descent, 30% of its residents medically uninsured, and 28% living below the federal poverty line. The weekend my dad became ill, people in Maryvale waited upward of 13 hours in 106 degree heat to access COVID-19 tests. Despite a six-week shutdown, the state was woefully unprepared ― from testing infrastructure to hospital beds ― for the tsunami of cases that Gov. Doug Ducey’s cavalier reopening created.
Ducey went on a messaging crusade when he reopened the state in mid-May, confidently misleading the public about the risks around the virus. Two weeks later, the governor claimed that if you didn’t have an underlying health condition, it was safe to get back to life as normal. At press conferences over the last seven months, the president repeatedly downplayed the dangers of the virus, including calling it a “hoax” and stating that it would just disappear one day like a “miracle.” He also compared the coronavirus to the flu in an effort to downplay its dangers, despite being caught on tape saying the exact opposite behind closed doors.
My dad, a lifelong Republican, believed these men. Within two weeks of Ducey’s media spree, my dad woke up sick. A few days later, he was in the hospital. He died after two weeks in the hospital, including five days on a ventilator.
It all happened very quickly. My dad was 65, but otherwise healthy. His father and many relatives lived into their 90s. Dad thought of himself as anything but old ― and if you were fortunate enough to catch him crooning on the karaoke stage or cheering on his favorite NASCAR driver, you would agree. He’d been given a clean bill of health at a recent physical.
My dad and I rarely agreed on anything political. But it especially broke my heart when he told me, from his hospital bed, that he felt sideswiped by the messages from Ducey and the president. He was terrified of dying but he also felt betrayed. It made me so angry. He trusted these people ― the people in charge ― and it cost him his life.
I couldn’t blame him. After all, we are taught to follow the direction of those leading us, especially in times of crisis. And this was, and still is, a major crisis. Two months later, the people in charge are too busy putting on the big spectacles, like the pernicious Republican National Convention hosted at the White House or Trump’s recent rally in Nevada, instead of doing the work to get the virus under control.
“My dad and I rarely agreed on anything political. But it especially broke my heart when he told me, from his hospital bed, that he felt sideswiped by the messages from Ducey and the president. He was terrified of dying but he also felt betrayed.”
My dad, and thousands of other people in the United States, didn’t deserve to die. I’m now on a mission to ensure that the world knows why my dad died and to see that those who are responsible ― Donald Trump and his enablers ― are held to account.
One way I’m doing this is by working to get other honest obituaries published through a new organization called Marked by COVID. Marked by COVID is uplifting the stories of those lost to COVID-19 and those we stand to lose. We’re working with teachers, students, the bereaved and survivors to demand action on the virus and spotlight the Trump administration’s failure in controlling its spread.
I never thought of obituaries as a tool of exclusion until I read the aforementioned comment on Twitter shortly after burying my dad. How could I be so blind, I wondered as I tossed my phone on the bed. People are dying out of the blue. Brown folks can barely pay for rent, let alone a surprise funeral. If something is going to get cut, the cost of publishing an obituary makes sense, I thought.
Now as we approach 200,000 deaths in the U.S. and the end of the pandemic is nowhere in sight, I’m committed to helping as many families as possible share their stories. With the help of friends and family, Marked by COVID has continued to raise money to sponsor the obituaries of folks who want to tell the truth about how their loved one died. It’s important to me that we find ways to uplift the stories of people like my dad: everyday people whose lives were cut short because our leaders refused to lead or put politics above human life.
Unfortunately, a newspaper backlash to the honest obituaries appears to be starting. In August, a newspaper in San Antonio rejected an obituary from a grieving family that called out the connection between Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s and Trump’s actions and this unnecessary death. The chief of sales for the newspaper tried to convince me that the obituary was an advertisement and wasn’t a “normal” obituary. I scoffed and responded, “I placed an obituary for my father last month that looked very similar to this.”
I then reiterated the obituary guidelines published on the paper’s website, none of which were being broken by this particular obituary. His response? “Well you know what I mean.” In contrast, another Texas paper ran the obituary without a problem, as well as a powerful opinion piece justifying the need to run obituaries as a political statement by a local university professor.
In the few months that I’ve worked with families for Marked by COVID, we’ve published six obituaries and I’ve gained some notoriety. Some people, like those at the San Antonio newspaper, say they are offended by what they allege is the “politicization” of my dad’s death. What they fail to acknowledge is that by rejecting science and making decisions based on political calculus, Trump is the one who politicized my father’s death. I’m just telling it like it is, and sometimes the truth in all its authenticity stings.
Let this sink in: Our president continues to tell us COVID-19 will just “go away” but we’re still very much in the middle of a pandemic and, with schools reopening and the winter approaching, it could get worse. As a result, millions of people are still getting sick and hundreds of thousands more people could die preventable deaths. Sadly, it may only be a matter of time before someone you know and love dies from this horrible disease. I wouldn’t wish a COVID-19 death on my worst enemy. It’s lonely, painful and undignified ― and worst of all, it doesn’t have to keep happening.
Every three days we lose the number of Americans we lost on 9/11 to COVID-19. Our response needs to be coordinated, data-driven and on a national scale if we’re ever going to stop this pandemic in its tracks. And in the meantime, I’ll continue writing honest obituaries to showcase the true costs of Trump’s lies.
Kristin Urquiza is an activist and advocate. After her dad died from COVID-19 she co-founded Marked by COVID. She also works to protect tropical rainforests as deputy director at Mighty Earth. She is a graduate of Yale University and University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy where she earned a Master of Public Affairs.