When Kristin Urquiza drafted an obituary for her father, Mark Urquiza, she didn’t imagine it would be all that controversial or notable.
“I was just being honest,” she said, when she wrote that her dad’s death from Covid-19 was “due to the carelessness of the politicians who continue to jeopardize the health of brown bodies through a clear lack of leadership, refusal to acknowledge the severity of this crisis, and inability and unwillingness to give clear and decisive direction on how to minimize risk”.
Her words – published by the Arizona Republic – were shared, retweeted, emailed and relayed across the country. Daughters, sons, parents, grandparents, friends mourning loved ones flooded her inbox.
Her father was a Trump supporter who had trusted the president, and believed it would be safe to go to a karaoke bar after Arizona’s stay-at-home order was lifted in May. Now, Urquiza has returned to Phoenix, the city where he lived and she grew up, to campaign for Trump’s opponent – and get out the vote. “I’ve been turning my pain into purpose,” she told the Guardian. “This is our chance to collectively come together and demand change.”
The coronavirus crisis, which has dominated the election cycle, looms especially large over Arizona. The virus has killed more than 227,000 people in the US, including nearly 6,000 Arizonans, and forced hundreds of thousands more to file for unemployment. It has taken a disproportionate toll on Latino, Black and Native American populations.
Maricopa county was especially hard hit, and remains the fifth worst affected in the US. With election day less than a week away, a traumatized electorate is weighing the failures of Republican leaders to control the pandemic in Arizona, and across the country.
‘People don’t have work, and they don’t have healthcare’
At the peak of the pandemic this summer, Latino residents in Phoenix – who make up 40% of the city’s population – were nearly twice as likely to contract the virus as white residents. Latino, Native American and Black residents have not only been disproportionately dying of the virus, they have also been bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s economic fallout.
Imelda Quiroz Beltran, a canvasser with the nonprofit Mi Familia Vota who has been going door to door in Phoenix’s Latino neighborhoods in an effort to get out the vote, said she often ends up helping people with much more than just voter registration issues. “It’s very hard – heartbreaking,” she said. “People don’t have work, and they don’t have healthcare.”
Beltran herself caught the virus in the early summer, as did most of her immediate and extended family. “We had insurance, we were lucky,” she said. “But so many people I hear from in the community – they are afraid to go to the doctor even if they have Covid, because of the bills.”
Local Latino leaders said health officials botched efforts to improve access to diagnostic tests in Phoenix’s hardest-hit neighborhoods. In mid-July, the municipality set up free testing sites in the city’s Maryvale neighborhood – where Mark Urquiza lived – and at a desert park south of the city. But after a week and a half, three quarters of the 60,000 test kits remained unused.
In a county where the local sheriff has been working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), allowing raids and deportations to carry on amid the pandemic, people were unnerved by uniformed police and national guard, requests for ID, said Emma Viera, the executive director of the Phoenix based nonprofit Unlimited Potential.
At a socially-distanced Mexican Independence Day fair, where Unlimited Potential was offering blood pressure checks and distributing fliers with healthy recipe ideas, Viera said the year has dumped crisis upon crisis on Phoenix’s most vulnerable. “We were offering small amounts of cash assistance to families who didn’t qualify for federal aid,” she recounted. “And as soon as I finished writing the last check, a woman came to my office crying that she would have to put her two children up for adoption. She had no money to feed them.”
The trauma is unfathomable, said José Martínez, 50 – who lost his niece Xiomara Martínez in July. She was like a daughter to him, a sibling and mentor to his own five children. “We don’t have a word for a parent who loses their child,” he said, in Spanish. If you lose a spouse you’re a widower, if you lose your parent you are an orphan. But what was he? “Not having a word makes the suffering and pain harder,” he said.
Millions of people have already voted – and that’s a demonstration that they want change
Xiomara was only 37, “and life for her had not been easy”, he said. She was a transwoman, who came to the US in 1998 without documents. “In Mexico, she suffered because people did not understand her identity,” Martínez said. She had health complications as well – she suffered kidney failure in her 20s that left her dependent on dialysis. In June, as the number of coronavirus cases in Phoenix swelled, Xiomara was hospitalized due to a blood clot. Not long after, she found out she had Covid-19.
She called, pleading to come home. “She said, ‘I don’t want to die here, come get me from the hospital,’” Martínez said. “And I couldn’t bring her home. I was crying, that I couldn’t help her, that I couldn’t bring her home.” She died alone in the hospital.
Martínez said the family, her friends, the 14 little stray dogs Xiomara had adopted and nursed back to health – are all still stricken with grief. “This was the responsibility of the authorities. They didn’t do what they needed to do to control the pandemic.”
Martínez’s 19 year old son is voting for the first time this year. “I am anxious. But I am also hopeful,” Martínez said. “Millions of people have already voted – and that’s a demonstration that they want change.”
‘When Covid hit, it really changed the concerns of voters’
By June, Arizona had emerged as a coronavirus hotspot, counting more cases per capita than the hardest-hit European nations. Maricopa county was reporting 2,000 to 3,000 cases a day, “eclipsing the New York City boroughs even on their worst days”, according to epidemiologists at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Lines at drive-thru testing sites were at times 1,000 cars deep. Hospitals were overwhelmed, and so were funeral homes and morgues. The county ordered industrial coolers to keep the dead.
A month earlier, the governor, Doug Ducey – under pressure from the president and his anti-mask voter base, had announced plans to reopen the state. At that point, Arizona did not meet the White House’s own criteria for reopening, but Trump had nonetheless cheered on anti-lockdown protests across the country.
Ducey banned mayors from imposing stricter coronavirus restrictions and mandating masks, before relenting under pressure from the medical community. Days after Phoenix’s Democratic mayor enacted a mask ordinance, Trump visited the city, drawing thousands of maskless supporters to an indoor rally at a local megachurch. “It’s going away,” he told the crowd.
Exactly a week later, on 30 June, Urquiza’s father died.
In the weeks and months since, as Urquiza spoke to her relatives – some liberal, some conservative – “everybody, everybody said the same thing”, she said. “They said he was robbed, that we were robbed.”
A month after local jurisdictions enacted safety measures, the number of Covid-19 cases across the state dropped by 75%. Still, Covid-19 remains the third leading cause of death in the state, with outbreaks at schools and universities – which have slowly reopened this autumn driving a new wave of infections.
Ducey recently defended his handling of the crisis in response to criticism from Biden. “I prohibited cities from implementing onerous shutdowns on local businesses and citizens as some local politicians threatened to bring our entire economy to a complete halt,” he wrote on Twitter. “It paid off.”
His constituents may not agree. Throughout the summer, multiple polls found that between 60 and 70% of Arizonans disapproved of Ducey’s response to the pandemic. Polls by Phoenix-based OH Predictive Insights found that Ducey’s approval rating overall fell from about 50% to 35% in July, rising slightly to 41% in the late summer, as infection rates declined.
“I would watch our governor and doing his press conferences, and I would just get angry,” said Bill Whitmire, 56, a Phoenician who survived Covid-19. He’s been struggling with periods of confusion and depression since overcoming the virus – which his doctor said could be long-term, lingering symptoms of the disease. After his wife contracted the virus, “I felt I had to do something,” he said. She survived, but Whitmire started organizing safe, socially distanced events for locals who were not as lucky as him, for those who had lost loved ones – so they could mourn and vent.
The ongoing crisis and mounting death toll weigh on him, he said. “Sometimes I feel overloaded.”
Late last year, Arizona voters rated immigration, education and healthcare as top priorities, according to a survey conducted by the firm. By September, as officials grappled with how to safely reopen schools, education was their top priority, followed by healthcare and the economy.
“When Covid hit, it really changed the concerns of voters to the point where immigration is no longer in the top three,” said Mike Noble, the firm’s chief researcher. Noble said this shift in priorities puts Republicans at a disadvantage: on two of the three most important issues this election – education and healthcare – voters in Arizona trust Democrats.
As in other swing states, seniors, traditionally a bedrock Republican constituency, are abandoning Trump over his handling of the crisis, as are suburban voters, many of whom are juggling work and childcare amid school closures.
A recent Monmouth poll in Arizona showed Biden leading Trump, 52% to 46% among voters over 65. These voters said they trusted Biden over Trump to manage the pandemic by a nearly 20-point margin.
Hearing Trump continue to minimize the pandemic, even after he contracted Covid-19 himself, has been tough, said Linda Brown, 62. Her father died after the virus hit his Phoenix-area nursing home in July. “The notion that these millions of families who have been touched by Covid would ever consider it trivial is absurd,” Brown said. One of Brown’s sisters – who has asthma – was hospitalized with the virus right after her dad died. “I just bawled like I haven’t bawled since I was a child.”
She has already voted – for Biden. “If my father didn’t have dementia, if he was aware,” she said, “he would have been pissed off that this mishandling is what killed him.”
Democrats up and down the ballot have welcomed voters disillusioned by Republican leaders’ fumbled response. In Arizona’s sixth district – which encompasses wealthy Phoenix suburbs that have remained reliably Republican for decades, former emergency physician Hiral Tipereni has been locked in an unexpectedly tight race with incumbent Republican David Schweikert, who has been scrambling to hang on to a seat he easily won five times over.
Republicans have “become tone deaf to the cries of these families”, Tipereni said.
That she is such a serious contender in the race this year is a testament to how large the pandemic looms over this year’s election. Two years ago, when Tipereni ran unsuccessfully for Congress in a neighboring district, her opponent baselessly attacked her as a “fake doctor”.
This year, Tipereni’s medical background has been a boon. “My skill set is the same as I had last time,” she said. “But I think people have now seen the very real consequences of having leaders who do not lead with science.”