Ethnography of a Pandemic: COVID-19, New Orleanians, and Transition

Author: Asad el-Malik is a PhD candidate at Columbia International University’s School of Intercultural Studies. You can contact him at asadelmalik@gmail.com.

Field site: I am currently experiencing the lockdown in New Orleans, Louisiana where I have completed ethnographic research on African American Muslims. My current research is centred on the relationship of religious practices and psychotherapy.

The first case of COVID-19 in the state of Louisiana was documented on March 9. By March 22 there were 837 confirmed cases in 36 parishes with 20 deaths. The rapid spread of the virus and the mounting death toll, prompted Governor John Bel Edwards to issue a statewide shelter in place/stay-at-home order. This order required all non-essential workers to remain in their homes and all non-essential businesses to close until April 12th. On April 2nd the governor extended the order until April 30th. Mayor Latoya Cantrell issued a similar mandate for the City of New Orleans.

The stay-at-home orders were issued as an enhancement to the Trump Administration’s recommendation of social distancing. The orders given by the governor and the mayor effectively closed schools, universities, bars, theaters, restaurants, shopping malls, casinos, hotels and other non-essential businesses. For the first time since Hurricane Katrina, the businesses on Bourbon Street were shuttered until further notice. One month after Mardi Gras, which saw 1.4 million visitors to the City of New Orleans, many of the streets were virtually vacant.

As of the date of this writing (April 7, 2020) most New Orleanians are entering their third week of sheltering in place. Louisiana now has 16,284 cases of COVID-19 and over 580 deaths. The parishes of Orleans and Jefferson account for 185 and 137 of those deaths respectively. This area has been the most affected in the state and one of the most affected in the nation. With the number of cases rising daily and the death toll continuing to peak, the light at the end of the tunnel is not clearly in sight.

New Orleanians have begun to make drastic changes in their daily habits because of the shelter in place orders. No longer allowed to sit in their favorite restaurant or have a drink at their favorite bar, they are forced to transition to a home-based lifestyle. Many have started to work from home, others have taken on the responsibility of educating their children, and others have found creative ways to stay connected with family and friends.

In a city full of culture, vibrance, and life this ethnography aims to examine how New Orleanians are adjusting to social distancing, sheltering in place, and the new (ab)normal.

Ethnography

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “ethnography is a descriptive study of a particular human society or the process of making such a study. Contemporary ethnography is based almost entirely on fieldwork and requires the complete immersion of the anthropologist in the culture and everyday life of the people who are the subject of the study.” The data collection method for this case study was person-to-person interviews. The interviews were conducted over the phone as to remain in accordance with shelter-in-place and social distancing mandates.

The interviews were conducted with a small sample of New Orleanians. In total 22 people were interviewed. Of the 22, 36% identified as male, 63% identified as female, 18% identified as white, 72% identified as African American, and 9% identified as Latinx. The average age was 41. The occupation of those interviewed included social workers, former and current teachers, an HR Manager, business owners, a film set manager, IT personnel, an unemployed mother of two, a landlord, a social entrepreneur, a food and beverage supervisor, a project director for a non-profit, a program monitor, a publisher, and a writer.

Those that participated in the interviews came from various parts of the metropolitan area including the uptown (Carrollton and the Lower Garden District), New Orleans East, Gentilly, Terrytown, Westwego, Metairie, River Ridge, Slidell, Harvey, and Mid-City.

The interview questions were designed to elicit information about family relations (interaction and dynamics), health (experiences with COVID-19), political opinion, religion/faith, and time orientation(thoughts, feelings and ideas about the future). The same introductory script was read to each interviewee to begin the interview process. The script read as follows:

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to interview you. Although I will be collecting demographic information, your name or explicitly identifying information will not be used in the final draft of this report.I am only collecting demographic information to help identify and categorize trends in responses. There are five open-ended questions. Feel free to talk as much or as little as you want. I may be quiet for extended periods of time as I am attempting to capture everything you say. Do you have any questions for me? If not we can get started.

For the purposes of context, individuals will be identified by age, gender, and location.
The average interview lasted 36 minutes with some lasting nearly an hour. The interview with the most taciturn individual lasted 18 minutes. The text of the interviews were reviewed in search of trends in sentiment, thought, perception, and ideas.

Family Relations

“I have talked with them more in the last month than I did all of last year” (55 year old man, Gentilly)

The shelter in place order has required New Orleanians, in many ways, to re-examine family relationships and the value that they hold. For those sheltering in with family, they have developed new bonds and ways of interacting. For those that come from close-knit extended families but live in separate homes, sheltering in place has become an additional stressor as family traditions, caretaking, and communication has been greatly compromised.

Of the people interviewed, many expressed being closer to their families and speaking with them more often. A 55 year old man from Gentilly, stated that he has a mother that lives in the city of Gonzales (Louisiana) and a brother in the 7th Ward. He stated “I have talked with them more in the last month than I did all of last year”. He expressed feeling more connected and closer to his family members. This sentiment was shared with a 40 year old woman from the West Bank area of New Orleans. She stated that she and her family have become closer. “I call a lot more people…a lot more… It has made me want to stay closer to family.” She also stated that the time at home gives her more opportunity to pay attention to her children and to bond with them. “I work so much but now I can pay attention to them and what they have going on”. A 36 year old woman from New Orleans East also expressed that she too is becoming closer with her children. “In a way it is helped with me and my kids… We are able to talk more…they ask more questions…the relationship is better with communication.”

Others expressed anxiety and concern for family members that are not in the home, in particular, elderly family members that require extra care and attention. “My mother is in a nursing home in Hammond and it’s been hard not to go see her. She has onset dementia and may not be understanding what’s going on. It’s been tough of course” stated a 54 year old woman from Metairie. A similar situation was shared by a 36 year old woman in New Orleans East. “I have a grandmother in the nursing home that is used to seeing us every day but we can’t see her anymore…I also have a mother on oxygen that I can’t see because I was sick.” Social distancing and the threat of COVID-19 has required a 44 year old woman from the Westbank to alter the way she provides food for her mother. She now has to cautiously wipe down the containers of food that she prepares and sends to her mother who lives on the same street.

Another person expressed the same concern about elderly family members. “It has definitely limited the amount of time I can spend with family and friends…the most significant impact is that I have older family members that rely on me and it’s been kind of difficult for me” (34 woman, New Orleans East). Another expressed that she has been staying away from her family and grandmother who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and is 92. “I can’t get close to them… seeing them from a distance is hard… It’s been kind of hard being away from them and…worrying…I might have had slight panic attacks” (34 year woman, 7th Ward). She is learning to practice breathing exercises in order to ease her anxiety.

Others are making adjustments to the way that they visit and interact with family members. “I went to visit my mom and sat on her porch like eight feet apart” said a 31 year old woman from Mid-City. A 43 year old man from Gentilly said he sent his children to Lafayette because “it (COVID-19) had gotten really bad in New Orleans. I can’t really get a chance to see them unless we drive up and wave at them”. Both he and his wife are employed at a local hospital and don’t want to risk infecting their children so they refrain from getting close to them. They drive to Lafayette and speak with their children from the car.

Relationships with friends have also been drastically altered. Social media and applications like Zoom have become vital in maintaining relationships. ”I haven’t had any changes in relationships… I am online talking”(43 year old woman, Gentilly). A 34 year old woman from uptown has found a way to enjoy her social experiences from the comfort of her home. “I have been running a karaoke night on Zoom” she said. She even added that after the karaoke show is finished she and her friends hangout on Zoom the way they used to in person after their live shows.

Health

“My tears were even hot…”(36 year old woman from New Orleans East describing symptoms of what she believed was COVID-19)

With 8000 plus cases of COVID-19 in the Orleans-Jefferson Parish region, there doesn’t appear to be anyone that is not affected by the virus. A 32 year old man from New Orleans East was diagnosed with a disease. He described his experience as particularly troubling. After attending a work conference in Shreveport, his co-worker became ill. She was tested for the virus but the results took nearly seven days to return. When she received the confirmation that she indeed had the disease it was on a Sunday. She died the next day. In the meantime he also started to exhibit symptoms. He experienced fever, chills, headaches and a cough. However, he was refused testing several times because of his age and relatively good health. He was finally tested at Ochsner Baptist hospital and received a preliminary positive. He attributes his recovery to his faith and a medication regimen administered by his mom.

“Well my mom’s best friend’s husband passed… My best friend’s grandmother in law passed and my best friend is really sad about it because she died alone… It’s scary… My other best friend said her cousin passed…he went to the hospital but didn’t stay…they found him the next day dead” (43 year old woman, Gentilly). A 50 year old man from New Orleans East stated “my mama is in the hospital right now… She wound up testing positive. She was having shortness of breath…they told her she had fluid on her lungs but she’s doing good…she might come home this week or they may move her to the Convention Center…they’re moving people to the Convention Center to free up space in the hospitals.” A 28 year old man from uptown also said he has a close friend that is currently fighting the disease. “My ex-girlfriend, I dated a while ago… same age as me… got diagnosed and now she’s in the hospital.”

A 29 year old woman from the Westbank expressed frustration with the testing process. At the time of the interview she was displaying some symptoms of the virus.

“It’s hard to get tested…some people are dead before they even get the fever because they are sending people home to home quarantine. I have a firefighter friend that got tested and he was negative but I have a friend that works at a shelter that took forever to get tested, it took forever to get the results…I don’t feel confident that if I try to get a test that I will be able to. I don’t have a fever and I don’t know if I can get tested. Some people are saying they haven’t gotten their test back in 14 days because of back log.”

Several interviewees believe that they contracted the disease prior to coronavirus or COVID-19 becoming an issue in the United States. “I started feeling sick on Mardi Gras day. I went out to Zulu but my head hurt so bad my eyes hurt. For about a week it was bad. On March 7th I went to the doctor they told me that it was nothing they could give me. From March 7th through the 15th, I couldn’t walk. I was throwing up… I had every symptom. I felt like I was dying…my tears were even hot. I was hot, I was cold, I went through hell (36 year old woman, New Orleans East).

“I had all the symptoms except for the respiratory issue. Since the 23rd of March I have been feeling pain in my back and then I developed a fever. I was down for about 10 days. Yesterday was the first day I was able to feel normal again. I don’t know if I had it cause I never got tested…I never prayed so much in my life” (40 year old woman, Westbank).

It also appears that distrust, fueled by historical health inequalities, leads some African-Americans feeling unsure of whether or not they will receive adequate care if hospitalized. “If they run out of respirators you think they going to give it to us?(44 year old woman, Westwego). Another added “I have never prayed so hard in my life because these are scary times. I don’t have that much faith in our healthcare system… the healthcare workers are overworked and underpaid and on top of that not trusting the healthcare system to care for all” (34 year old woman, 7th Ward).

Political Opinion

“They are afraid to stop and hit the breaks”(44 year old woman, Harvey)

The perception of state and local government’s management of the pandemic and the shelter-in-place orders appear to be favorable. Nearly all of those interviewed believed that the mayor and the governor were doing the best that they could considering the circumstances. “There was not a single major event cancelled around the world (referring to the criticism Mayor Cantrell received for allowing Mardi Gras to continue as scheduled). The mayor immediately took action to issue a social distancing order and then a few days later she took bold and decisive action and issued a stay-at-home order. She issued her order before the governor issued his order” (36 year old man, Carrollton).

However there was a common thread that appeared in most of the responses and that was more strenuous measures should be enacted. “I think they are moving too slow. They are afraid to stop and hit the brakes…we should have check stops and police on every corner scaring people back in their doors”(44 year old woman, Harvey). “I feel like she (Mayor Cantrell) is doing the best she can. I think that she could be a little bit more firm… I think between the two of them (mayor and governor) they’re going to have to put their foot down. People are like kicking it. We are used to our liberties and freedom but I feel they need to put some teeth behind it” (31 woman, Mid-City). “At the Bonnabel boat launch it’s like a huge party 10, 20 up to 50 up to a 100 people out there having crawfish boils…idiots all together. That’s a concern of mine…young people…I’m young I’m never going to get it…that’s the mindset that keeps this spreading like it is” (54 year old woman, Metairie).

“I am not a political person. I think based on their resources they are doing the best they can. I think things can be managed a little better. We don’t need fast food restaurants open as essential businesses. I feel there should be a curfew to make people go inside”(40 year old woman, Westbank). A 48 year-old woman from Terrytown was a bit more direct. “I don’t think they have the balls to enforce the stay-at-home mandate… People are out and about just carrying on their business. I’m not big into politics but I admire how other governments in other countries have gotten to enforce their rules so they can actually stop the spread of COVID-19.”

Religion/Faith

“Faith is what is getting me through”(40 year old woman, Westbank).

In New Orleans religious practices play a very important role in the culture. The day after Mardi Gras it is not uncommon to see people from all walks of life with a cross made of ashes in the middle of their forehead. The city’s large Catholic population has influenced many cultural practices. The historically Catholic practice of refraining from meat on Fridays during Lent, has resulted in fried fish plates being sold on corners and church parking lots throughout the city.
New Orleans also has a large Protestant population. It is the home of the Full Gospel Baptist tradition founded by Bishop Paul Morton. Other large Protestant congregations include Franklin Avenue Baptist Church and The Household of Faith. These churches have thousands of congregants that meet weekly at multiple services.

The shelter in place order has greatly affected churches across the city. Many churches have adjusted by using social media and other digital platforms in order to conduct services. The interviewees expressed a variety of ways that faith has played a role and their ability to cope with the threat of the virus.
“Spirituality has helped. I’m always giving God praise and glory in my life… Jesus Christ said don’t worry about tomorrow”(29 year old man, Carrollton). Another respondent stated “I consider faith a part of my life. I keep in touch with my pastor and my first lady. He gets online to encourage us. I have a great faith-based community and we all talk to one another and that helps”(43 year woman, Gentilly).” Faith is what is getting me through. Faith definitely plays a huge part in what is going on with me right now” (40 year old woman, Westbank).

“Up until about 10 years ago, I almost exclusively socialized within my faith community. After grad school I began to see my human family. My faith grounds me. My closest friends are from my faith community” (49 year old woman, Metairie).

Many expressed that they were not connected to a particular faith community but maintained their own religious and spiritual practices that kept them grounded. The stay-at-home orders had little effect on these autonomous faith practices.

“I consider myself a spiritual person. I don’t have anyone that I depend on for my spirituality. I listen to music that helps with my spiritual health” (44 year old woman, Westwego). “I do believe in a higher power but I don’t subscribe to any religion at this time. I have been praying more” (34 year old woman, 7th Ward).
The employment of autonomous faith practices was a common thread in the responses from most who identify faith as important. “I trust in God but as for me going to church every Sunday no. There is no outside faith community that I rely on. It’s my personal relationship… I believe in the power of prayer” (44 year old woman, Westbank). Even for those individuals who identified with a particular religion, many still employed autonomous faith practices. “So I am a Muslim…I pray at home. I am thinking you can do your own thing at home. You say your prayers and meditate after. If anything, being at home has allowed me to say my 5 prayers on time” (48 year old woman, Terrytown). “I am 100% a man of faith. I am a follower of Jesus… the Bible says follow me. I don’t think it is necessary for people to gather in person… The Holy Spirit can work through Zoom” (28 year old man, Uptown).

A few respondents did not see traditional faith practices or beliefs as necessary. A 55 year old man from Gentilly stated “when you say faith community, that whole Sunday go-to-meeting I reject in my lifestyle. But I think back, I am glad my ancestors had that…they had something to believe in…the faith that I have has to be within me, not some outside force. I have grown closer to that.” Another respondent added “no faith is not a very important part of my life. I have my own beliefs and practices” (34 year old woman, Uptown).

Time Orientation

“Future has become a luxury word” (48 year old woman, Terrytown)

Currently there is no end date in sight. While the current shelter-in-place mandate by Governor Edwards it’s set to expire April 30th, he has cautioned that the situation will be examined at that time. It is highly possible the mandate will be extended past April 30th. With nearly another three full weeks of social distancing and sheltering in place, there is little doubt that some permanent changes in New Orleans will take place.

Many of the interviewees expressed that they have already made psychological changes because of this experience. “You have to grab life by the horns. It has changed me. I will do all the things that I put off and grab it by the horns and roll with it” (32 year old man, New Orleans East). “It is going to make me cherish my life more and do everything I want to do and not waste time. At this point in life, anything I want to do I think I need to go full speed with it and really serve my purpose” (40 year old woman, Westbank).

“I think it will change me. I am more conscious of what I do now. I’m more conscious of people’s feelings and emotions. I needed to become more compassionate”(44 year old woman, Harvey). Another interviewee added “in the grand scheme of things this is going to teach a lesson and I am embracing the lesson”(29 year old man, Carrollton). Others also embraced a positive outlook. “I was a teacher that got fired after Katrina and had to move across the country and we got through that…I don’t know exactly (but) I’m sure we will get through fine” (43 year old woman, Gentilly).

“I’ll demand a better work-life balance. I have seen positive benefits of being inside, cooking my own food… Balance…millions of people are now unemployed from jobs that had taken time away from their families and now that’s gone in an instant” (44 year old woman, Westwego). “Right now I am trying to see where I’m going to fit in…I am developing a lot of good and useful habits that I hope to continue after going through this. The universe is forcing the world to unplug for a second…to stop…to be still and listen. Prayer is when you are talking to God. Meditation is when you listen to God and you can’t hear that if you are not still” (55 year old man, Gentilly).

Others presented themes of appreciation and preparation. Many expressed that small things such as family gatherings and dinner in a restaurant will be appreciated more. “I am sure I will value time spent with others definitely more”(34 year old woman, 7th Ward). “It has enlightened me to a house being a home and not just a place you pass through” (31 year old woman, Mid-City). “I’m not going to take things for granted. I will be taking care and making sure I am getting the fullness out of life. Yeah I feel like I got to get it done but I got to do me and take care of myself” (44 year old woman, Westbank).

“It makes me look for the signs of something coming. Like if this happens that means this here is about to happen. So even if it doesn’t happen you are ready for it” (50 year old man, New Orleans East). “Future has become a luxury word” (48 year old woman, Terrytown).

Summary

Resiliency is defined as the ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. Nearly 15 years after Hurricane Katrina decimated the city, the citizens of New Orleans are now faced with another crisis. However, their resiliency is stronger than ever.

The shelter-in-place mandate has made New Orleanians reevaluate their familiar relationships and appreciate the time spent with loved ones. Families are becoming closer. Parents are learning their children better. Children are learning their parents better. People are learning themselves better. Families are communicating within the household as well as with extended family members.

Contrary to the popular perception of the city being a party capital, what New Orleanians actually value are their intimate relationships between family and friends. None of the people interviewed mentioned going to a bar or a nightclub when the mandate is lifted. Rather, they are looking forward to seeing loved ones. They are interested in sharing a meal with a family member and giving a hug to an old friend.

However, many New Orleanians have serious concerns about the well-being of elderly family members who depend on them for assistance. In this way, family ties have suffered. Social distancing has forced many to refrain from seeing loved ones who may have pre-existing conditions or who are elderly. There’s also great concern for family members who have been diagnosed and hospitalized with COVID-19. Because of the quarantine of these family members, some fear they may die alone.

Funeral and burial traditions have also suffered greatly because of social distancing and the shelter-in-place mandate. In a city that is known for jazz funerals, the loss of any famous native son or daughter is usually celebrated/mourned with a second line. However, the recent death of Ellis Marsalis, the patriarch of a jazz family, was met with no such tribute. Funerals have been reduced to 10 people at a time. Making one of the most difficult experiences, even more difficult.

However, many are using this time to focus on improvement and self-development. Some have started exercising, making healthier meals, reading more, creating art, gardening, and making home improvements. This time has changed their perception about work and the amount of time they spend being productive on a job as opposed to being productive at home.

Frustration with the healthcare system and access to testing, early on, appears to be a common concern amongst New Orleanians. Others are concerned with the amount of time it takes to receive test results. Because of racial bias and deeply entrenched discrimination in the healthcare industry, some black New Orleanians are doubtful that they will receive adequate medical care if they are hospitalized.

On the hand, support for local leadership appears to be strong. Mayor Cantrell is generally viewed as handling this situation as well as to be expected. She is perceived as being transparent and communicating well with the citizens. Governor John Bel Edwards is also viewed favorably by the majority of the respondents. He, too, is perceived as being transparent and communicating well. Some were critical of national media for implying that Mardi Gras should have been canceled. They defended the mayor and believed that had she known she would have acted accordingly.

The major concern that New Orleanians have with political leadership is the lack of enforcement of the stay at home mandate. Many feel that legal repercussions should be instituted and enforced for those who are not adhering to the mandate. More police presence and even the National Guard patrolling the streets were seen as reasonable and viable options.

Reliance on faith and spiritual practices appear to be high. Without the ability to attend religious services, most have adjusted by using social media platforms to engage in religious material and keep in contact with their faith community. Others have employed autonomous faith practices such as reading their scriptures, praying, and listening to spiritual music while in their home. It appears that the lack of participation in formal religious organizations did not equate to diminished faith practices.

While everyone is uncertain when the situation will be behind them, there appears to be general optimism about the future even if cautiously stated. On the other side of the situation, people have made the determinations to pursue goals more vigorously, to be better prepared in the future and to focus on being physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy. They have also vowed to spend more time with family and friends and appreciate small things such as going to dinner at a restaurant.

Overall, the shelter in place mandate has not diminished the spirit of resiliency in the people of New Orleans. While most admit that the situation makes them feel like they’ve been dealt a bad hand they also feel they have the dexterity to play the cards and win. New Orleans is down but it is nowhere near out.

 

This post was originally published in Big Easy magazine. Photo credit: Arun Kuchibhotla.