How the COVID-19 outbreak changed their lives

After Britney James (left) picked up her 2-year-old daughter Ava Taylor, Linda James (right) pushes her granddaughter while she rides a swing at Linda James' home in Montezuma on Wednesday, August 5, 2020. Linda James babysits her granddaughter regularly at her home. Linda James has mostly kept in isolation at her home over the Sumter County line for five months, ever since she left her Americus hair salon shift in early March after hearing casual talk of infections -- and never came back. She has Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure and can't afford to get infected.  Her Americus clients keep calling, pressing her to come back to work, including one woman who recovered from COVID-19 after a month in a coma. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
After Britney James (left) picked up her 2-year-old daughter Ava Taylor, Linda James (right) pushes her granddaughter while she rides a swing at Linda James' home in Montezuma on Wednesday, August 5, 2020. Linda James babysits her granddaughter regularly at her home. Linda James has mostly kept in isolation at her home over the Sumter County line for five months, ever since she left her Americus hair salon shift in early March after hearing casual talk of infections -- and never came back. She has Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure and can't afford to get infected. Her Americus clients keep calling, pressing her to come back to work, including one woman who recovered from COVID-19 after a month in a coma. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Three of those caught in a pandemic that has disproportionately affected African-Americans relate their experiences.

LINDA JAMES

Linda James has not returned to her Americus hair salon since the first weekend in March, when she heard waiting clients throwing out names of those who’d gotten COVID-19 after attending a choir performance in the county next door. She stood there, as she has for 38 years, relaxing her clients’ hair, setting the styles — and thinking of her own Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. She decided she was not coming back.

Not long after, she heard that people were dying: a man she worked closely with at church. Seven or eight of the people at the choir performance. A close friend. The friend’s stepmother and stepfather.

One of her clients was infected, found face down by her family, James recalls. “She was in the hospital over six weeks. The first month she didn’t even know she was in the world.”

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Yet later, when James told the woman she suspended the business, the woman retorted, “Well I don’t understand what you’re scared of.”

“I had to take the phone from my ear and look at the phone to make sure I was talking to her,” James said.

And her elderly father-in-law doesn’t understand why James and her husband keep physical distance from him, even at a cookout.

“It’s just so impersonal, it doesn’t feel good,” James said. “You’re just wondering when it will ever end; will they leave here and not be able to ever embrace us again?”

HOMER BELL

In Sumter County, gravedigger Homer Bell saw his workload double in the early days of the pandemic. And funerals changed.

He was accustomed to going to funerals where people socialized. Now, he says, just 10 can attend. “They sit back and just look.”

Sometimes people don’t even come to the burial tent, but ride by, or watch from the car.

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“It’s a whole complete turnaround, believe me,” he said. “What else can you do.”

“I know a lot of funerals I wish I could have attended but I didn’t,” he said. “I wish I could have gone to the family. But I don’t want to do more harm.”

He knows the toll the pandemic has taken by the graves he has dug and the friends he has lost.

Among them was a man his age, whom he had grown up with. “And it was a shock,” Bell said. “He wasn’t sick, and it was like it happened all of a sudden. I knew he had issues. He had high blood pressure. I think he was a diabetic, but I’m not sure.

“But when he caught COVID-19, he got sick at home. And he drove himself to the hospital and he didn’t ever come out. Stayed in there three days, and he passed.”

JESSICA WALLS

Jessica Walls, 37, of Sparta said she contracted COVID-19 during the spring, though she does not know where. Asymptomatic, she disclosed her test result to those she had been around in the days before she tested positive, as a precaution.

Afterward, people falsely accused the health care worker of knowingly going out in public while she was infected, she said, and posted about her positive test result on social media. She felt so traumatized by the experience that she stopped shopping at local stores.

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“Everybody was just shaming me,” she said. “I wouldn’t dare try to harm anyone. That is not what I do because I rarely go out anyway. I am a homebody. I work and go home. I don’t hang out that much.”

She suspects people have been afraid of talking about the disease in her community because of how she was treated. Her lesson from dealing with COVID-19: “Expect the unexpected.”

One of Walls’ friends, Hancock County Coroner Adrick Ingram, reached out to support her while she endured the criticism.

“It was almost bullying to a certain extent — but harassing, definitely,” he said.

The stigma could have inhibited efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Hancock early on, though people are more comfortable talking about it now that it is so widespread, he said

“There are more people,” he said, “that are saying, ‘Hey, I have had it. I have it. Pray for me’ on social media.”

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