Cornell Charles Catches Coronavirus


Cornell Charles and the Mardi Gras

The coronavirus has hit New Orleans, especially hard. Part of this comes from the thousands of people who celebrated the Mardi Gras and passed on the virus. One of the participants was Cornell Charles, 51, who continued the tradition of driving a car in the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club’s parade. A month later, his wife of three decades was watching him take his last breath, a victim of the coronavirus epidemic raging through the city. “I talked to him. I told him how much I was going to miss him,” said his wife, Nicole, describing those last minutes on March 24. “He literally took his last breath in front of my face, and that was it.”

Group Pays Heavy Price

In New Orleans members of the Zulu krewe, one of the groups that sponsor Mardi Gras parades and balls, have paid a heavy price. Four of the fraternal organization’s members have died from coronavirus-related complications, said Zulu President Elroy A. James. Two others have also died since the pandemic began, though it’s not known if the virus caused their deaths, he said. An additional 20 have tested positive. Some are self-quarantining at home, and some were hospitalized and released, while others are still hospitalized, James said.

Financial Toll Is Heavy

It’s also taken a financial toll. Many Zulu members work in the hospitality sector. They are out of work, James said, a widespread problem in a city with an economy closely tied to the restaurants, bars, and nightclubs now shut mainly due to the statewide stay-at-home order. “Zulu is really a microcosm of the city of New Orleans,” said state Sen. Troy Carter, a longtime Zulu member. “We’re made up of every social and economic background that you can imagine. Our members come from all different walks of life.”

Large Percentage Of Victims Are Blacks

The predominantly African American club is in some ways a reflection of how the disease has affected the black community in Louisiana. More than 70 percent of the state’s coronavirus patients who have died are black. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild symptoms like fever and a cough that resolve in two to three weeks. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, more severe symptoms can occur, including pneumonia, that can lead to death. For over a century, Zulu members have paraded for Mardi Gras in their distinctive grass skirts and blackface inspired by a 1909 vaudeville skit, compiled for the group’s 100th anniversary in 2009. It was not just a Mardi Gras parade group but one of the benevolent societies that played an important role in African American history by providing life insurance or funeral costs to its dues-paying members.

The question still remains, should the Mardi Gras have been held in the wake of the coronavirus?