Pamela Addison is, in her own words, “one of the shyest people in the world”. Certainly not the kind of person to file a comment on a newspaper, set up a stranger support group, or ask a United States senator to vote for $ 1.9 trillion.
No one is more surprised than she that she has done all of these things in the past five months.
Her husband Martin Addison, a 44-year-old health care worker in New Jersey, died on April 29 after a month of illness from the coronavirus. The last time she saw him was when he was loaded into an ambulance. At 37, Ms. Addison had to look after a 2-year-old daughter and a young son and make ends meet on her own.
“Seeing the impact my story had on people – it was very therapeutic and healing for me,” she said. “And knowing that I am doing it to honor my husband is what gives me the greatest pleasure because I am doing it for him.”
With the staggering coronavirus death toll in the United States – more than 535,000 people – come thousands of stories like theirs. Many people who have lost loved ones or whose lives have been compromised by long-distance ailments have turned to policy, soliciting responses and new guidelines from a government whose failures under the Trump administration allowed the country to become one of the hardest hit countries are going through the pandemic.
There’s Marjorie Roberts, who got sick while running a gift shop in an Atlanta hospital and now has lung scars. Mary Wilson-Snipes, who is still on oxygen more than two months after she returned from the hospital. John Lancos, who lost his 41-year-old wife on April 23. Janis Clark, who lost her 38-year-old husband on the same day.
In January, she and dozens of others took advocacy training on Zoom given by a group called Covid Survivors for Change. This month, the group organized virtual meetings with the offices of 16 Senators – 10 Democrats and six Republicans – and more than 50 group members campaigning for the coronavirus relief package.
The immediate purpose of the training was to get people, who in many cases had never attended a school council meeting, to do things like lobbying for a senator. The long term purpose was to address the problem of numbers.
Numbers are dehumanizing, as activists like to say. In sufficient quantities – for example 536,472 as of Wednesday morning – they are also numbing. It is for this reason that converting numbers into people is so often the job of activists seeking to change their policies after a tragedy.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving, founded by a woman whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver, did that. Groups promoting stricter gun laws, such as Moms Demand Action and March for Our Lives, have tried to do this. Now, some coronavirus survivors think it’s their turn.
“This bond, this collective national trauma, is almost too difficult for people to grasp,” said Chris Kocher, executive director of Covid Survivors for Change who previously worked with gun violence survivors at Everytown for Gun Safety. “But you can understand a story and a lived life.”
Mr Kocher started organizing CSC last summer – on a “minimal” budget, he said – and the group kicked off publicly in October with a memorial service with Dionne Warwick.
Just before campaigning for their Senators on March 3, CSC members heard from someone who was once in their position: Georgia representative Lucy McBath, who joined Moms Demand Action after her son Jordan Davis was killed in 2012. She discussed her own experiences of transitioning from personal tragedy to political activism and how survivors’ stories might influence elected officials.
A CSC member, Ms. Wilson-Snipes, 52, also worked with Moms Demand Action. She started a chapter in Junction City, Kan. After her son Felix was fatally shot in 2018. In November she got Covid-19 and was hospitalized with pneumonia.
Ms. Wilson-Snipes came home on Christmas Eve with an oxygen machine that she still needs. Her lungs are still inflamed, and her chest is still painful.
While the guidelines she promoted with Moms Demand Action are different from those she and others advocate with Covid Survivors for Change – like wearing masks and providing financial aid to people affected by the virus – she said the message was the same: “It could be in my family’s shoes, in my shoes. “
This was also the message Ms. Addison conveyed in an article after President Donald J. Trump contracted the coronavirus and told the nation, “Don’t be afraid of Covid.” That was the moment she got angry enough to speak, she said because Mr. Trump’s words were “probably the most painful words I had ever heard from a leader”.
March 17, 2021, 10:30 a.m. ET
The Star Ledger released Ms. Addison’s statement in October and she was shocked by the intensity of the reaction.
“I never really thought about it that much – that I could use my story to make change,” she said.
She decided to start a Facebook group for newly widowed parents and found her first members through comments on her comment. In January she took part in the Covid Survivors for Change training. This month, she and other members in New Jersey spoke to Senator Cory Booker’s office.
Another cohort spoke to the Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff’s office. One of them was Ms. Roberts, 60, the former gift shop manager with lung damage from the virus.
“March 26th I woke up, I was fine,” said Ms. Roberts. “And when the sun went down that night, my whole life and that of my entire family were forever changed.”
After the Ossoff meeting she called Mr. Kocher tearfully. For almost a year, she said, it was the first time she had felt heard.
The political mobilization of coronavirus survivors is still at an early stage, and it is impossible to know whether it will fade or solidify into something permanent after the pandemic ends. However, Covid Survivors for Change isn’t the only group seeking long-term change.
Another organization, Marked by Covid – founded by Kristin Urquiza, who lost her father to the virus and spoke at the Democratic National Convention – recently launched a comprehensive political platform. Among other things, it calls for a “public health workforce” of one million people to take on tasks such as contact tracing, a reimbursement program similar to the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, and a commission to review the government’s pandemic response.
The platform also includes much more contentious proposals, such as a federal job guarantee, universal health and child care, debt relief for doctors and students, and a ban on imports of products related to deforestation. Ms. Urquiza said the idea is to address factors that make pandemics more likely and make Americans economically safe enough to weather crises.
“It’s really not just about making sure we’re responding to the most pressing parts that are right in front of our faces,” she said.
Covid Survivors for Change, on the other hand, has no official platform. Although members campaigning for Congress did so in support of President Biden’s stimulus package, the group is impartial and has focused on training survivors to further the policies they have chosen.
Several members said the virus pulled them into the political arena in ways that shocked them a year ago.
Janis Clark, 65, said her husband Ron Clark has always been politically active. “Whenever he saw politics, it was like, ‘Here comes the half-hour dissertation,'” she said with a laugh. “I would get nervous about PTA functions.”
Mr Clark died on April 23 after two weeks at home with a fever of 104 and over three weeks on a ventilator. He never found out that his daughter was pregnant.
Desperate to understand what the virus number really meant, Ms. Clark began to write. She wrote to the New York Democrat Paul Tonko, who represents her district around Albany. She wrote to Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. Little did she know that they probably wouldn’t answer.
“I just wanted someone to hear my story,” she said. “And it was like, how do you reach out to these people? I don’t know what the right way is. I never wrote anything to my congressman. “
In February, Ms. Clark signed an open letter organized by Covid Survivors for Change. She urged the senators to pass an aid package and called for a funeral reimbursement program and more medical resources for survivors. Now she thinks she could do more – maybe even take part in a demonstration if she’s sure.
For some people it feels like building something out of rubble.
Mr. Lancos met his wife Joni Lancos when he was working as an interpreter for the National Park Service at Federal Hall in Manhattan and she was a clerk on the third floor. Her first date was November 3, 1977. He took her to a Broadway show with Danish pianist Victor Borge.
In April last year, 41 years and 15 days after their wedding and less than 18 hours after her first symptoms, she died in an intensive care unit in Brooklyn
There was no memorial service, not when the streets of New York screamed day and night with the sirens of ambulances that carried the dying. Seventy-year-old Mr. Lancos searched in isolation the debris of grief and his own infection that left him with brain fog and short-term memory loss. The funeral home sent him five photos of a rabbi praying over his wife’s coffin.
“That was it,” said Mr. Lancos through tears. “That was my funeral for my wife when I saw these five photos.”
On March 3, he was one of the Covid Survivors for Change members speaking to the office of Mr Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader. Then he recorded a short message for a video.
“I think Joni would -” he said, pausing to take a calm breath, “be proud of what I did today.”