DAWSON, Ga. (AP) — The reverend approached the makeshift pulpit and asked the Lord to help him make some sense of the scene before him: two caskets, side by side, in a small-town cemetery busier now than ever before.
Rev. Willard O. Weston had already eulogized other neighbors lost to Covid-19, and he would do more. But this one stood as a symbol to him of all they had lost. The pair of caskets, one powder blue, one white and gold, contained a couple married 30 years who died two days apart, at separate hospitals hours from each other, unaware of the other's fate.
The day was dark. There was no wind, not even a breeze. It felt to some like the Earth had paused for this.
As the world's attention was fixated on the horrors in Italy and New York City, the per capita death rates in counties in the impoverished southwest corner of Georgia climbed to among the worst in the country. The devastation here is a cautionary tale of what happens when the virus seeps into communities that have for generations remained on the losing end of the nation's most intractable inequalities: these counties are rural, mostly African American and poor.
More than a quarter of people in Terrell County live in poverty, the local hospital shuttered decades ago, and businesses have been closing for years, sending many young and able fleeing for cities. Those left behind are sicker and more vulnerable; even before the virus arrived, the life expectancy for men here was six years shorter than the American average.
Rural people, African Americans and the poor are more likely to work in jobs not conducive to social distancing, like the food processing plant in nearby Mitchell County where four employees died of Covid-19. They have less access to health care and so more often delay treatment for chronic conditions; in southwest Georgia, the diabetes rate of 16% is twice as high as in Atlanta. Transportation alone can be a challenge, so that by the time they make it to the hospital, they're harder to save.
At least 21 people have died from Covid-19 in Terrell County, and dozens more in neighboring rural communities. For weeks, Weston's phone would not stop ringing: another person in the hospital, another person dead. An hour before this funeral, Weston's phone rang again, and this time it was news that another had succumbed to the virus — his first cousin, as close to him as a brother.
Some here had thought their isolation might spare them, but instead it made the pandemic particularly cruel. In Terrell County, population 8,500, everyone knows everyone and every death is personal. As the mourners arrived at the cemetery, just the handful allowed, each knew others suffering and dying.
The couple's son, Desmond Tolbert, sat stunned. After caring for his parents, he'd also rushed his aunt, his mother's sister, to a hospital an hour away, and there she remained on a ventilator. Her daughter Latasha Taylor wept, thinking that if her mother survived, she would have to find a way to tell her that her sister was dead and buried.
"It's just gone haywire, I mean haywire," thought Eddie Keith, a 65-year-old funeral home attendant standing in the back who was familiar with all the faces on the funeral programs piling up. "People dying left and right."
Usually, on hard days like this, he would call his friend of 30 years, who was a pastor at a country church and could always convince him that God would not give more than he could endure.
But a couple weeks earlier, that pastor had started coughing, too.