District Mayor Muriel Bowser had to bury her big sister over the weekend. Those of you lucky enough to have brothers or sisters—and luckier yet, to love and be loved by them—may already be running figures in your head. The idea of burying a sibling graphs an incalculable grief. (That Bowser’s parents survive their eldest daughter ratchets up the exponents in the equation: It’s Mother Nature’s cruelest joke to make moms and dads bury their kids.)
To all outward appearances, Mercia Bowser was a loving soul until COVID-19 claimed her. She advised Metro on better ways to make room folks with disabilities, and she trained D.C. police cadets on crises intervention. Muriel Bowser, as you might expect, has asked for “the time and space we need to mourn the loss.” This is understandable. For those who loved Mercia, the sorrow must be beyond measure.
That’s not to say that Mercia’s sickness and death can’t be measured. We know for a fact that Mercia Bowser is one of 40,122 Washingtonians to test positive for the deadly virus. We also know that she’s one of 1,005 Washingtonians to die from the virus. Mercia Bowser’s death—and the respectful press coverage thereof—compiles and compounds the world-without-end grief for those of us who live in Muriel Bowser’s Washington (where, to borrow Auden’s phrase, “the unmentionable odor of death/Offends the… night…”).
It’s often said that COVID-19 does not discriminate. That’s true-ish. Mercia Bowser is one of a handful of District “notables” to suffer the disease. (Another is the good Rev. Timothy Cole, rector of Christ Church Georgetown; we have the phrase “famous/good looking/cool for DC” for a reason).
By the numbers, though, this pandemic has been a Black and brown person’s disease. More than that, it’s been a poor Black and brown person’s disease. That is especially true in Muriel Bowser’s Washington. The District has been lucky in one way that its numbers—awful as they are—haven’t reached the world-historic proportions of other cities. But consider:
- As of Thursday (when Muriel Bowser announced her sister’s death), at least 513 people in the city’s homeless shelters had tested positive;
- As of Thursday, at least 234 staffers at Elizabeth’s Hospital had tested positive;
- As of Thursday, at least 409 people connected to the District’s Department of Disability Services had tested positive, and at least 49 had died; and
- As of last June, at least half of the inmates at the D.C. Jail had tested positive.
All indications are that the city’s homeless shelters, jail and halfway houses were early—and deadly—disease vectors. We still wait any kind of reliable count on how many busboys, bartenders, waiters, grocery clerks and gig drivers the pandemic has afflicted. But in Muriel Bowser’s Washington, it’s safe to say that COVID-19 has been a disease of the least, the lost and the last.
It’s here that the two equations—Muriel Bowser’s private grief and the grief of Muriel Bowser’s Washington—cross-multiply.
The least (and the last)
Her Honor has been careful to make the right noises about the pandemic’s insidious class and racial dimensions. She often begins her (oft-peevish) news conferences with references to the “tragedy” of the whole thing. She is at pains to claim that the earliest doses of vaccine are doled out in the District’s poorest and Blackist wards (although her crack staff doesn’t seem to know which ZIP codes are in Wards 5, 7 and 8). When she announced her sister’s death, she stuck with that theme. “I ask,” Her Honor said, “that you continue to keep those who have been lost or impacted by the pandemic and those who are working so hard to protect us from it in your thoughts/prayers.”
Mayor Bowser has been having herself a bit of a moment since the Jan. 6 coup attempt. Her private grief, if anything, may boost her Q rating among the DC bureau chief types (commuters that they are, god love them). For those of us living the grief of Muriel Bowser’s Washington, then, it’s all the more important to remember a few more facts:
- Muriel Bowser still refuses to close the city’s homeless shelters; instead, homeless folks are put up in District (mostly vacant) hotels only after they test positive for the virus;
- As late as April, Muriel Bowser pretended there was some kind of mystery about the deaths in those halfway houses;
- Muriel Bowser kept the District’s bars, restaurants, stores, &c. open until March 30—more than 10 days after the District’s first death and nearly two months after the first American death;
- Once she did close the District down, Muriel Bowser left thousands of suddenly unemployed folk to their own devices, with a web site that doesn’t work and checks that are perpetually in the mail. People are still waiting; and
- Now that the vaccine is “available,” Muriel Bowser is offering the most vulnerable amongst us… a web site that also, somehow—heroically—flabbergastingly—Doesn’t.Fuckin.Work…
Factor the equations any way you like. The outcome is always the same: Muriel Bowser has blood on her hands. That she now grieves her own blood is—as she herself insists—her own business. The grief that has overtaken Muriel Bowser’s Washington—and is continuing to do so as you read this—is our business.
“Thoughts/prayers?” It’s the least she can do. It’s up to us to decide whether it’s the last thing she does for us as mayor.
Bill Myers lives and works in Washington, DC. He tweets from @Bill_CapHill.