As COVID-19 Public Emergency Expires, Black Funeral Home Directors Note The Deadly Toll It Took

The pandemic disproportionately took Black lives. Those tasked with handling the deaths remember how bad it got.

The COVID-19 public health emergency ends on Thursday (May 11), underscoring a devastating period for the nation and especially the Black community.

A CDC announcement said, “The United States has mobilized and sustained a historic response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a nation, we now find ourselves at a different point in the pandemic – with more tools and resources than ever before to better protect ourselves and our communities.”

Covid-19 mortality rates highlight racial disparities. By the end of 2020, Black Americans died (97.9 per 100,000) at more than double the rate of White Americans (46.6 per 100,000), according to the National Institutes of Health.

“The overrepresentation of African Americans among confirmed COVID-19 cases and number of deaths underscores the fact that the coronavirus pandemic, far from being an equalizer, is amplifying or even worsening existing social inequalities tied to race, class, and access to the health care system,” the NIH noted.

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Doctors, nurses and public health professionals dealt with the illnesses. But Black funeral directors also had a first-hand look at the virus’ toll on the African American community as many buried their loved ones.

“It got to a point where our funeral homes and many other funeral homes were overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases that we were asked to handle on the cemetery side, as well as on the funeral home side,” Erich W. March, vice president of March Funeral Homes and president of King Memorial Park, told Afro News.

March Funeral Homes, a Black family-owned business, opened its doors to the community in 1957 and now has several locations in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. While attending to the needs of grieving families, the deadly virus unfortunately took the lives of two employees.

While E. Vaughn Wray Funeral Establishment in Norfolk, Va., didn’t see a significant rise in funeral services, founder Eric Vaughn Wray II told Afro News that he saw an increase of suicide and drug overdose related deaths.

In addition to taking lives, the pandemic was also brutal on mental health, causing feelings of isolation, fear and loss from the death of family and friends.

The nation’s suicide rate increased by the end of 2021 after a two-year decline, The Washington Post reported. The 4 percent increase during the pandemic reversed progress, pushing the rate back to its previous peak of 48,344 deaths in 2018.

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Black children and youth were already vulnerable before the pandemic struck. A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2019 that tracked suicidal behavior in youth from 1991 to 2017 showed that Black youth experienced significant increases in suicide attempts. The suicide rate among Black children ages 5-12 during that period was twice that of their white counterparts in 2017.

In 2020, the CDC found that the drug overdose rates for Black Americans increased 44 percent compared with 2019. It increased 22 percent for White Americans during that period. Mostly notably, the overdose rate for Black men 65 and older was nearly seven times that of their White counterparts.

Antonio Green, director of the James H. Cole Home for Funerals, Inc. in Detroit, told Afro News that his leadership team prioritized not only physical safety but also employees’ mental health.

“While caring for the needs of a community in crisis, we also lost loved ones and had to carry the burden of grief while trying to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe,” Green said. “It could be years before we truly understand the toll this pandemic has taken on us all, but one thing I know for sure is that we’re a resilient people, and we will come back stronger than ever.”

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