In the face of a global pandemic, storytelling shows unity, resilience and hope

In the face of a global pandemic, storytelling shows unity, resilience and hope


By Jada Johnson, Princyana Hudson, Breyanna Dabney, Amaya Murillo and Diera Johnson

May 30, 2020


Urban communities in the United States have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even beyond the thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of cases, nearly every urban dweller has felt the adverse effects of this crisis, whether it’s job loss, social isolation or economic uncertainty.

We spoke to youth leaders, peer mentors and health care workers in our communities to see how they have been affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and how they are coping and adapting.

The COVID-19 pandemic has notably disrupted the plans of students across America. Beyond the shift to online classes and remote graduations, young people have faced unseen disruption in their extracurricular activities.

Young Elder is a rapper and youth leader with HeartSmiles, a Baltimore-based youth leadership and enrichment program. Elder is using her songs, entitled, “Still Standing” and “I’m Trying,” to motivate young leaders of today, like her, to stand tall and be confident at a time when so many need it.

Young Elder, rapper and youth leader with HeartSmiles

Like most people, the pandemic has taken over much of Young Elder’s life. Since she can no longer go to the music studio, she has adapted her process by creating music at home and distributing it on platforms including Apple Music, Spotify and Pandora.

Elder is concerned people of color are not getting enough help from the government as there is a lack of information and resources.

“Not a lot of people know what’s going on,” said Elder. “This is making [the coronavirus] worse since nobody knows when they have contracted it so people aren’t being cautious enough.”

Still, Elder is thankful the pandemic has allowed her to spend more time with herself. She has learned ways to keep herself occupied and become more disciplined as college approaches. Even though the coronavirus pandemic has caused significant discomfort and tragedy, it can bring a lot of lessons for growth, she said.

“Because of corona, I’m going to really realize the value in saving since I can’t really spend a lot of money now,” she said. “I’ll have a better sense of money management.” A lot of growth and achievement can come from struggle and hard work, she added, if people remain hopeful.

As a social butterfly, James Gaither, Jr., a recent high school graduate from Baltimore, has had a hard time adjusting to social distancing measures. But he has made the most of his downtime by starting a business called Central Creativity, which allowed him to channel his creative juices and energy into something productive. He has created flyers, logos and other promotional items, earning himself a stable income. Even though he’s been spending money on online shopping during the pandemic, he has saved on clothes and created a flexible schedule that permits him to be productive while catching up on sleep throughout the day.

The coronavirus pandemic may have hurt his social life, but it made his long-term goal closer than he thought.

“Everything you do matters. Even if not now, it will matter later, so focus on the bigger picture when making decisions,” he said.

Similarly, Kamri Moses has chosen to take advantage of her downtime during the pandemic. She’s been able to get more sleep and has actually seen an improvement in her mental health, even though she certainly stays busy by selling and delivering smoothies across Baltimore. She has pushed herself harder while still allowing herself time to self-reflect and take breaks when she needs to.

Kamri Moses

“Struggle doesn’t last forever!” says Moses. “Value your time, even the hard times.”

Valuing the hard times is something Shelah Johnson is familiar with. In the past few years, Shelah has used his time in high school to show growth within himself by becoming a youth leader. Shelah explained how HeartSmiles allowed him to see the full potential in himself as a youth basketball coach while he was still finding himself in trouble for fights in high school. He always had a knack for basketball, and after taking an entrepreneurship class he decided to start mentoring through basketball.

“Unfortunately, I can’t play basketball like I want to [right now,] but basketball is my outlet for when times get stressed,” Shelah said. Shelah believed he was living the dream until COVID-19 came and put his happiness on a pause by putting a barrier between him and his teammates before he leaves for college.

Shelah is missing out on important opportunities to create memories with his team, such as his last basketball game as a coach, which he finds frustrating.

But upon reflection, he said, “Watching the sunrise early in the morning from my balcony creates a sweet Feng Shui within my oasis that relieves some stress. Even with some of the worst situations the best things can come through self-reflection.”

For Breyanna Dabney, life at home has felt less peaceful. After finding out about the 20 cases of COVID-19 between staff and residents at the nursing home where she works, Breyanna had no choice but to go on leave for a month to help protect her family.

Breyanna Dabney

Breyanna’s month of leave not only affected her income, but it affected her hours and the opportunity for college that her job offers. The nursing home gives $10,000 scholarships to students who work 1,000 hours. Breyanna is 16 and a rising senior at Perry Hall High School. After high school, Breyanna plans to attend college and major in pharmacy and pre-med.

“Now that my job is doing things delivery-style—we are dropping food off at residents' doors—they don’t need as many people in at once. So, I’m working less days of the week and I’m getting less hours than before,” she says.

“Being out of work for a month messed my money up and set back a lot of the plans I had for myself as far as savings.”

The pandemic has changed the way Breyanna and the other nursing home workers do their jobs. Strict precautions have been put in place to ensure everyone’s safety. The vast majority of coronavirus cases and deaths have stemmed from nursing home residents, with the numbers increasing regularly. Because of that, Breyanna’s job no longer runs like a dine-in restaurant.

“Workwise, it’s simpler, but a little more hectic since we have to deliver meals to over 700 residents,” says Breyanna. “Now the whole place is kind of like a ghost town. You rarely see residents around since they are supposed to be quarantined themselves.”

Breyanna’s story exemplifies the stresses felt in nursing home communities across the nation. Many elderly care facilities have seen widespread outbreaks of COVID-19 as the residents have a high rate of preexisting conditions that put them more at risk for contracting the virus.

It was “crazy and overwhelming” when one nursing home discovered it had two COVID-19 cases in early March, said a 35-year-old nurse/nurse’s aide and mother of three, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her job.

From early March until the end of April, the number of coronavirus cases grew from two in the Maryland county she works in to 4,000 throughout the state of Maryland.

“The following weeks were hectic and scary because there was no clarification on anything,” she says. “Although it was said on the news that we had so many test kits and resources, it didn’t make a difference in reality because the access wasn’t there and what we tried to avoid took its course.”

The Maryland nurse is emblematic of the nationwide issue. The New York Times reports that one-third of all U.S. COVID-19 deaths are nursing home residents or workers. The vulnerable population living in such close quarters also increases the risk of virus contraction for these people, who may also have disabilities.

Despite efforts to avoid the virus, the nurse’s facility was not immune.

“The staff and employees did not sign up for this. Nobody wants to be put at risk or in the position to put their family at risk,” she said.

And then she tested positive for the coronavirus. She experienced body aches, headaches, fever and exhaustion. Despite the initial severity of her symptoms, she fortunately recovered within 2 weeks.

“Thankfully our staff are very dedicated and we were able to get what we needed despite the overwhelming situation we were in,” she said.

She and her colleagues are very much looking forward to the end of the pandemic and hoping for a better outlook for the residents of the facility and the staff.

In addition to medical concerns, this nurse and frontline health care workers like her are facing unprecedented mental health challenges. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, physician burnout and mental strain were already high among clinicians. With the pandemic straining health care staffing and a death count that keeps climbing, health care workers have seen that burnout magnified.

Many clinicians are forced to work long hours and isolate away from family when not working. They are also experiencing the daily trauma of witnessing and treating patients with the coronavirus. This has led to at least two medical workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus fight in New York losing their lives by suicide, making national headlines and sparking a conversation on how we can best serve those who have bravely put their lives on the line. Many health care practitioners have boldly come forward with their stories from the frontlines and the difficulties they’ve faced in their roles.

Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, former Illinois state health director and epidemiologist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The stress of health care is all too familiar to Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, the former Illinois state health director and epidemiologist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But for these troubled times, storytelling can be just the prescription.

“Storytelling and narrative have the ability to touch people in a way that statistics cannot,” said Dr. Hasbrouck.

Telling personal stories of survival, optimism and hope are critical to our physical and spiritual recovery, Dr. Hasbrouck believes. He analogizes the “truth” such stories convey with a bolt of energy shocking a body. This shock experience, he says, forces people to wake up and see the other side that they tend to put behind them if they do not have to face the same adversities.

Once these issues have been brought to the surface, he continues, people tend to want to help because of what they thought they knew about another person’s experience turned out not to be true. Now there is a whole new dynamic of issues that people could help with to relieve some of the stress of those who actually face these issues first-hand.

“When you start to hear stories and narratives about how people’s lives have been impacted, disrupted, struggling to survive and losing sleep over what they need [to survive during the coronavirus pandemic] … that really strikes people in their hearts.”

That impact is why some people, like Michelle Payne, have made it their life’s work to share their stories of bravery and resilience.

Payne has been fighting myelofibrosis for the past two and a half years. She spends her days pushing for more public awareness and testing for rare blood cancers, such as the one she is currently battling. To continue her work, though, she needs a bone marrow transplant that doctors say could defeat her own case of blood cancer. The coronavirus pandemic has caused her “elective” surgery, along with untold numbers of surgeries and other hospital procedures, to be placed on hold.

“It’s been two years and seven months since my diagnosis, and it’s becoming more and more of a roller coaster ride every day,” Payne says. “My pain is elevating and becoming harder to distinguish, not knowing if it is bone pain or muscle pain. Standing on my feet is becoming more difficult, not to mention the sleepless nights due to profuse sweating.”

Michelle Payne

Things may be looking up, slightly. Payne has received word that her surgery may be rescheduled within the next six to eight weeks, but she still doesn’t have a set date.

Meanwhile, she remains confined to her Washington, D.C., home because she has a very high risk of infection and her immune system has been compromised by chemotherapy. She is under the care of her two sons, who cite her as an inspiration.

“I love how strong my mom is,” says Payne’s son Reggie. “She makes me feel like anything is possible.”

Not surprisingly, Payne prefers to look ahead. She will schedule her surgery as quickly as possible, she says. Then it is on to her new cause.

“I will continue to fight the good fight [supported] with my spiritual beliefs and my sons’ unconditional love,” she says.

“And knowing that I've got plenty of more work to do, my job is not done."

These stories we share are emblematic of what millions of urban Americans are feeling while this pandemic enters a new phase of reopening and management. The individuals demonstrate resilience in the face of both personal and collective trauma. We hope readers see themselves in these stories and use the power of storytelling to share their own with the world.