Austerity Is Fueling the COVID-19 Pandemic in New Orleans, Not Mardi Gras Culture

Mainstream outlets are claiming the mounting coronavirus crisis in New Orleans is the result of cultural practices like Mardi Gras. That's nonsense — it's a consequence of deep class divides and decimated public health infrastructure.

Bourbon Street is empty as Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards orders bars, gyms, and casinos to close until April 13 due to the spread of coronavirus on March 16, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Chris Graythen / Getty

On Wednesday, February 19 at the Krewe of Nyx parade in Uptown New Orleans, Geraldine Carmauche was tragically killed when trying to cross between two sections of a float. Three nights later during the Endymion Parade in Mid-City, Joe Sampson died in a sadly similar manner. Not since 1981 when two children lost their lives had anyone been killed by a float during Mardi Gras.

To be sure, carnival season has witnessed horror more recently, from shootings to drunk drivers plowing into crowds and killing cyclists. For many New Orleanians, though, the deaths of Carmauche and Sampson felt distinctly different: they were killed by one of the most recognizable symbols of Mardi Gras itself. By the time news of Sampson’s death hit, people across the city were discussing whether Mardi Gras 2020 was accursed.

And there was broad agreement about the origins of the curse. Sitting in the Northwest corner of the French Quarter is the hulking carcass of the collapsed Hard Rock Hotel construction project. Taller than any nearby building to its north, south, and west, it dominates the city’s skyline from all three directions. At least three people died when the hotel construction project came crashing down on October 12, 2019. More than five months later, two bodies covered by tarps remain on the undemolished site, occasionally visible to passersby after a strong wind.

We say at least because persistent rumors among New Orleanians suggest that because the collapse occurred on a Saturday, there were more undocumented laborers than usual that day as workers brought friends to the site to do extra work under the table. It’s possible, perhaps likely, that more bodies lie in the rubble and that the friends and family of the deceased have not come forward for fear of deportation. Indeed, the hero of the collapse, construction laborer Delmer Joel Ramirez Palma — who had repeatedly complained of safety violations and the day before the disaster warned supervisors of floors shaking as if in an earthquake — was detained by ICE two days after the collapse and deported to his native Honduras in November.

For those inclined toward portentousness, superstition, or perhaps just karmic comeuppance, the fact that at least two bodies literally hovered over this year’s Mardi Gras was all the explanation for the tragedies at Nyx and Endymion they needed. Repeated labor and safety complaints before the collapse as well as the fact that the site’s developers had contributed at least $69,000 to Mayor Latoya Cantrell only intensified the feeling that God’s wrath arrived before Ash Wednesday this year.

Yet for all the talk of curses and spells, the irony was that our notion of an accursed Mardi Gras grew out of a sophisticated and growing public outrage over the underlying conditions that caused the disaster. Initially quiescent — “terrible, but these things occasionally happen everywhere” — as the bodies remained entombed in the undemolished rubble of the site for month after month, New Orleanians began to ask more questions and peel back the layers of the rotten onion.

On barstools and front porches from late 2019 onward, the Hard Rock tragedy was sparking the kinds of political discussion usually considered impolite in such spaces. The plight of the undocumented; endemic labor and workplace safety violations; pay-to-play politics; an economy built on low-wage labor in tourism and hospitality; a local political class beholden to developers and aloof from popular constituencies — all were topics of growing quotidian conversation. And if there was a hex on Mardi Gras 2020, then its origin lay in our political inability to ameliorate these conditions that preexisted the collapse.

In the last week, global attention has been laser-trained on this year’s carnival season, though the political crime of the Hard Rock collapse has not been the subject. Stories in every major US news outlet from Fox News to the Washington Post — with a flagship article in the New York Times — have sought to trace the severity of the local and national COVID-19 outbreak to Mardi Gras and its crowds. Whereas local discussion of the tragedies of Mardi Gras 2020 was marked by a growing analytic sophistication in service of a quasi-superstitious lesson in collective political failure, these analyses are marked by simple but dangerous vapidity. They exude recycled and anti-intellectual bromides of Louisiana exceptionalism and authenticity, a thin veneer of coastal elitism and hypocrisy, and a deep unwillingness to grapple with political and social causation.

These stories do nothing to help us understand the sources of the rapidly unfolding public health crisis in New Orleans or the nation at large. Their focus on Mardi Gras as a central cause of the city’s explosive rate of COVID-19 cases distracts us from the real causes: the deep class divides and weakened public health infrastructure that defines New Orleans and has made it synonymous with American inequality for at least fifteen years. New Orleans and Louisiana were of course far from bastions of equality before August of 2005. Nevertheless, as we have both repeatedly argued, far from being exceptional Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath presaged worsening conditions across the rest of the nation in the years since the failure of the federal levees.

When we widen our view, the idea that Mardi Gras, New Orleans’s population density, the city’s culture, or its tourism industry per se are meaningful sources of causation is both absurd and dangerous. Other US cities are more populated and more densely so. Many are more international, play host to exponentially larger volumes of tourists, and unlike New Orleans, are hubs of aviation transportation. Other cities hosted large public events at the same time as this year’s Mardi Gras celebrations. While Mardi Gras certainly attracts thousands of tourists, it remains above all a local and regional celebration, unlike many other large events across the country.

Miami hosted the Super Bowl LIV in early February, which attracted over 62,000 spectators for the game itself, not to mention the many other events before and after. The Daytona 500 auto race drew 100,000 spectators in late February, many thousands of whom were tightly packed in tents and RVs in the racetrack’s oval for days surrounding the race. As Mardi Gras weekend kicked off in New Orleans, thousands were visiting Chicago for the National Basketball Association’s All-Star weekend, packing bars and restaurants as well as the many fan events, concerts, exhibition games, and press junkets held in stadiums and pop-up venues scattered across the city.

Other cities, too, have expressive public cultures defined by dense public gatherings. Reading the national articles, though, Louisianans could be forgiven for recalling those dollar-store preachers who argued that Hurricane Katrina was God’s retribution for the next weekend’s pro-LGBTQ Southern Decadence Festival and the city’s broader sinfulness.

No, the difference in spread and mortality in Louisiana that these articles purport to analyze is not because of culture, whether celebrated as some sort of authentic, calcified premodern ethos or decried for its blasphemy or wickedness. It lies in the very political problems of deep inequality, health care privatization, and class schisms that define this city and the nation as a whole. Paeans to street life, “expression[s] of joy,” and “the way people connect culturally” don’t simply distract from underlying causes, they are themselves an underlying cause.

The Political Roots of the Crisis

After Katrina, city and state politicians shuttered Charity Hospital, which had been a vital lifeline for generations of working-class New Orleanians. Bobby Jindal was soon elected Louisiana’s governor with the future of New Orleans still uncertain and nearly one-hundred thousand black New Orleanians, a core of the Democratic Party base, still scattered to the four winds.

Jindal along with a wide array of politicians of both parties shifted the Charity Hospital system to private management, and shortly after the W.O. Moss Medical Center in Lake Charles and the Earl K. Long Hospital in Baton Rouge were shuttered as well. This left only one public hospital in a state with a long progressive tradition of indigent and low-income care. Jindal and his minions efforts to privatize Louisiana’s hospital system and move the poor towards private insurers only made matters worse in a state that has often been among the poorest in the nation.

As we all witnessed during the 2005 Katrina crisis, the experience of disaster is highly variegated across class. New Orleans remains deeply divided by class and race because of the market-centered recovery that has reshaped the city over the last fifteen years. The much-touted “rebirth” hollowed out the public sector, markedly increased inequality, and rewarded property owners, especially large real-estate developers.

A recent report by the New Orleans–based Data Center makes clear the structural vulnerability of the poorest segments of the city’s working class to the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, the median household income in New Orleans is $38,423, little more than a third of that in other COVID-19 hot spots like King County, Washington ($95,009) and Westchester County, New York ($94,811). Not only are the poor more likely to be uninsured, but they also suffer higher rates of health conditions like hypertension, diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and other life-threatening illnesses.

These factors alone — which are the result of human decisions, policy choices, and our nation’s broader anti–working class politics — tell us more about the region’s mortality rate than pronouncements about an urban character that “runs on intimacy.” Such assertions are grist for the worst of “culture of poverty” rhetoric, a long-standing ideological device that blames the poor for their poverty rather than the violence of our economy.

If we’re talking about social intimacy then the correct lens is overcrowded housing, a fact that further compounds these preexisting conditions. In the last few years, working-class New Orleanians, like millions of other Americans, have endured an affordable housing crisis. In New Orleans, 36.6 percent of renters are burdened with severe housing costs, meaning they spend more than half of their monthly income rent and housing utilities. Not only are low-income residents forced to accept substandard and unsafe housing choices far from employment opportunities, but the housing cost burden forces households to make difficult decisions between food, medical care, and other basic needs. This situation, firmly political and structural — that is, decidedly not cultural — makes self-quarantining more difficult and likely hampers the effectiveness of “shelter in place” orders.

Similarly, the workplace conditions in the city’s low-wage tourist economy are more to blame for frightening transmission rates than the renascent sinful/soulful city narratives. In metro New Orleans, lower-income workers are more likely to work as hotel housekeepers, home health care workers, store clerks, servers and bartenders, childcare providers, taxi and rideshare drivers, domestics, bussers, and nannies that put them at greater risks of being exposed to and transmitting COVID-19. With few exceptions, these workers have no labor organizations to collectively defend themselves nor any right to family and medical leave. As we write some of these workers are beginning to fight back by demanding their share of government-backed tourism funds during this economic crisis. These efforts, though, only throw into sharper relief how the region’s enormously profitable hospitality economy has been defined by startlingly low wages, no benefits, and deep precarity.

Although the ongoing pandemic is not yesterday’s flood disaster, what does it mean when the same citizens — the poor, the infirm, the elderly — are once again the principal victims? These socioeconomic realities, which were made so painfully clear during the Katrina disaster, evaporate with explanations centered on Mardi Gras specifically or cultural practice more generally.

Such conditions are not limited to the city of New Orleans but are distributed across Louisiana’s population more broadly. Rather than dwelling on Louisiana’s exceptionalism, its unfolding crisis should be a cautionary lesson for other states with austerity-wracked health care infrastructure, especially in rural areas and smaller towns where less profitable hospitals have been closed and where too many uninsured or underinsured residents cannot find the care they need even during normal times. These preexisting conditions will shape the fates of millions of Americans if we do not expand the social wage, and decommodify health care, housing, education, and other basic needs.

To his credit, Governor John Bel Edwards has tried to undo the worst of Bobby Jindal’s legacy by expanding Medicaid and reinvesting in a resource-starved and increasingly privatized public education system. Edwards and other local leaders have also issued shelter-in-place orders, suspended in-house service at bars, cafes, and restaurants, and laid out plans to expand hospital capacity. As local columnist Stephanie Grace recently pointed out, local leaders’ actions were firmly within and even ahead of the national timeline of increased restrictions around gatherings and social distance. While Mayor Cantrell deserves harsh criticism for her response to the Hard Rock collapse, her handling of this health crisis has been competent and a least equal to that of local leaders around the country.

More broadly, New Orleans leaders are operating under extreme handicaps, handicaps caused not just by Jindal’s inhumanity but by the policy imperatives put forth by both political parties. Every Democrat who has decried Medicare for All must answer to the millions of people who have lost their health insurance in the last few weeks, many of them now wondering whether treatment or testing for symptoms will lead to a bill in the tens of thousands of dollars.

If this catastrophe makes one thing clear it’s that at this moment the most meaningful divide in US political life is between those actively working toward single-payer health care and those unwilling to embrace it. This divide has a growing body count, and not just in Louisiana.

No City or State of Exception

Pinning the current crisis on Mardi Gras rehearses a well-established narrative about New Orleans’s exceptionality. The city is certainly sui generis and we all cherish its distinctiveness as a place. But overstating New Orleans’s exceptionalism runs the risks of blinding us to the ways it is all too typical.

New Orleans and Louisiana do not stand apart from the broad social, political, and economic developments that have shaped the country. Their plights are local manifestations of broader national problems, from health care privatization to nonexistent workplace rights. The phrases “underlying conditions” and preexisting conditions” have become tragically common in American life. Just as the very fact that individuals predictably have such conditions as a function of their lack of access to health care, good wages, workplace rights, and decent housing, so too are the collective tragedies of this virus the results of a political consensus that has produced this system and our lack of viable way to challenge it.

Last week a phalanx of national reporters descended upon the city to once again exoticize and exceptionalize New Orleans and Louisiana. Ironically, though utterly unsurprisingly, when New Orleanians discussed the curse of Mardi Gras 2020 last month they showed far more sophistication in understanding where our underlying and preexisting conditions derive from.

During the Katrina crisis, the costs of our decimated social state were made brutally clear. Despite the momentary national outrage at the time, we find ourselves once again reckoning with the failure to achieve an alternative. The current pandemic has sharpened social contradictions and created conditions ripe for advancing progressive reforms at the state and national level. What working-class citizens in Louisiana and across the nation need right now is a politics that meaningfully demands the restoration of public goods. New Orleans is not a sideshow, but a main stage in the battle to reverse the damage of austerity and privatization.

End Mark

About the Author

Thomas J. Adams is Dianne Woest Fellow of the Historic New Orleans Collection and senior lecturer in history and American studies at the University of Sydney. Along with Matt Sakakeeny he is the editor of Remaking New Orleans: Beyond Exceptionalism and Authenticity (Duke University Press, 2019).

Cedric Johnson is associate professor of African American studies and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and editor of The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism and the Remaking of New Orleans (University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

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