For the Zulu club, the Carnival season involves a series of meticulously planned and eagerly awaited ceremonies, balls and festivals, almost every day in January and February. The Zulu Ball, one of the group’s three grand-scale, marquee events, fell on Friday, Feb. 21, this year. Some 20,000 people, floor-length ball gowns and tuxedos required, packed into the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center — one of the few venues large enough to hold the crowd that came to eat and drink and dance and witness the crowning of the Zulu King and Queen of Mardi Gras. At the parade, the king, elected by club members, wears a golden crown and an elaborate festoon of feathers. He rides on a float, waving a glittery scepter at the crowd, flanked by two hand-painted leopards rearing up on their hind legs.
As Mardi Gras festivities began, bringing over a million visitors from around the world streaming into the warm, welcoming city to celebrate face to face and elbow to elbow with local residents in a progression of street parties and parades, dozens of coronavirus cases had already been documented in China, which reported its first death on Jan. 11. On Jan. 20, the first known case was confirmed in the United States: a Washington State resident who had recently returned from Wuhan, China. Behind the scenes, Louisiana health administrators had begun discussing the growing situation, seeing it as low-risk, according to emails obtained by Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation.
On Feb. 5, four days after Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted, “Roses are red/Violets are blue/Risk is low for #coronavirus/But high for the flu,” New Orleans officials held a multiagency coronavirus planning meeting. The same day, a statement posted on the city’s website read: “Our public health and health care systems are ready for Mardi Gras, and the coronavirus poses a very low risk to the Carnival celebrations.” At the time, just 12 cases had been reported in the United States and none in Louisiana.
In the late 19th century, W.E.B. Du Bois, the eminent black sociologist and author, conducted research to better understand the diseases that contributed to high rates of mortality in black communities. Du Bois and his team did extensive shoe-leather fieldwork that he would turn into his 1899 opus, “The Philadelphia Negro,” canvassing neighborhoods and interviewing residents in 2,500 households. He also used census data to document the distribution of health status. Unlike most experts at the time, who blamed racial inferiority and genetic flaws for health inequities, Du Bois highlighted the social conditions they studiously ignored. In a later work, “The Health and Physique of the Negro American,” Du Bois wrote: “With the improved sanitary condition, improved education and better economic opportunities, the mortality of the race may and probably will steadily decrease until it becomes normal.” Du Bois was unsparing on the lack of empathy for the health and well-being of black Americans, who were still reeling and recovering from 250 years of enslavement and struggling through the reactionary years of Jim Crow. “The most difficult social problem in the matter of Negro health is the peculiar attitude of the nation toward the well-being of the race,” Du Bois wrote in “The Philadelphia Negro.” There were, he continued, “few other cases in the history of civilized peoples where human suffering has been viewed with such peculiar indifference.”