'People were left to die': How losing her father to COVID-19 inspired one woman to fight for accountability

·5 min read

Millions of families around the world are still struggling with grief after losing loved ones to COVID-19. Kristin Urquiza, whose father, Mark, died of COVID-19 in June 2020, is also fighting for accountability.

Urquiza grew up in Maryvale, Ariz., and her family still lives there. When Gov. Doug Ducey, who is a Republican, announced the state's stay-at-home order was expiring on May 15, 2020, she had a premonition that the loosened restrictions would negatively affect her community. 

"The state reopened promising that it had the infrastructure in place to serve the community. And that just simply wasn't the case in Maryvale — people were left to die," Urquiza tells Yahoo Life.

"When crisis and disaster hit, it hits in communities like Maryvale first, before in the more affluent, typically more white neighborhoods," she explains. "We are a predominantly Hispanic community. We're about 75 percent folks from a Latin heritage. We're about a third immigrant."

Urquiza says there was a huge campaign encouraging people across the state to get back to normal life and help stimulate the economy. She says her father, a proud Republican, was excited that the pandemic appeared to be conquered, and saw the reopening as his job to help restart the economy.

"There are radio clips of [Ducey] in late May of 2020 saying, 'Hey, we're on the other side of the pandemic. It's safe, get, get out there, go take a loved one to dinner. You're going to be fine.' And my dad took that information and ran with it." 

Mark loved karaoke, and in late May, he went out to celebrate with friends. He tested positive for COVID-19 a few weeks later and was hospitalized.

By June, Arizona was becoming a hot spot for COVID-19. News outlets reported that the state had reopened too soon, and that lack of access to testing only exacerbated the surge of COVID-19 cases. Maryvale was one of the places hit hardest in the state.

"The community was bearing the brunt of the pandemic as cases were skyrocketing and our community hospitals were over full with people," Urquiza explains. "The situation was so bad, not just from cases, but also from lack of preparedness, from lack of testing, from lack of contact tracing the weekend my dad got sick. My childhood neighborhood had people waiting in line upwards of 13 hours to get a COVID-19 test." 

Urquiza, who lives in San Francisco, remembers the last conversation she had with her father. He was lying in his hospital bed, and she asked him how he felt about everything that had transpired.

"He took a long pause and said, 'Kristin, I feel sideswiped,'" she says. "I said, 'Do you feel betrayed?' And he said, 'Yeah, I do.' And it broke my heart."

He died on June 30, 2020, after five days in the hospital.

After Mark's death, Kristin struggled with conflicting emotions.

"There was a hurricane deposited in my body, the grief and mourning and pain, but coupled with pure fury was unlike anything I had ever experienced. And I just couldn't allow that to remain inside of me," she says. 

Urquiza decided to write what she now calls an "honest obituary" for her father. At the top, she shared details about Mark and who survived him. Then she got real about how he died.

"I used the last paragraph to say my dad should not have died by COVID. And like so many others, his death is due to politicians who continue to jeopardize the lives of brown and Black folks with their terrible policy decisions, lack of leadership and lack of decisive action to mitigate the virus," Urquiza says.

While she didn't plan for her dad's obituary to be a political act, she started to receive messages from people with similar stories. This newfound community inspired her and her partner Christine Keeves to create Marked by Covid, a nonprofit organization dedicated to truth-telling, changing policies and creating support and community for those who have lost a loved one during the pandemic.

"Millions of people are in deep grief right now because of what they've lost and who've they've lost," says Urquiza. "I wanted to create a space where people who were feeling all of the impacts of the virus could come together and share their stories and call for accountability for failures of government, but then also advance policy both on the federal level and local level that really centers this community of survivors and family members that have really been shouldering the pandemic."

Kristin Urquiza hold a copy of her father's obituary at his gravesite (photo: youtube)
Kristin Urquiza holds a copy of her father's obituary at his gravesite. (Photo: YouTube)

The survivor-led and -founded organization has made its mission to support each other in grief, and ensure that their losses are remembered and recognized. Urquiza continues to speak out on vaccine misinformation, and Marked by Covid has been the driving force behind the creation of a federally recognized Covid Memorial Day on the first Monday of every March.

"How are we going to start to heal the pain of a generation? But also, how do we set up future generations to know the unvarnished truth, so that we never make these same mistakes again?" she says.

As a person of Latino descent, Urquiza has been frustrated by the lack of investment she's seen in immigrant communities and communities of color. She recognizes the systemic issues that contributed to the spread of COVID-19 in Maryvale and sees it as her responsibility to seek equality and respect for future generations.

"I think back to my grandparents and my dad and the entire beautiful Mexican-American family that I grew up in, and we often talked about the people who came before us and the sacrifices that they made," Urquiza says. "My job is to pass it on and be a good ancestor."

– Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove

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