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D.C.’s Mayor Mourned Covid’s Unequal Toll. Her Sister Is the Latest Victim.

As the number of coronavirus deaths in the city reached 1,000 this week, three-fourths of the dead were Black.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said one of the 1,000 people who died from the coronavirus in Washington, D.C., was her sister, Mercia Bowser.
Credit…Michael A. McCoy for The New York Times
  • Feb. 25, 2021

In the long season of the pandemic, Washington, D.C., managed to avoid some of the grimmest numbers. Relative to its population, there have been fewer known cases in the city than in most states, and far fewer deaths than in New Orleans or New York City.

But one statistic has stood out. Black residents, who make up 46 percent of the city, have died in staggering disproportion. As the coronavirus death toll in Washington reached 1,000 this week, three-fourths of the dead were Black.

And hours after Mayor Muriel E. Bowser declared Wednesday a day of remembrance for “these 1,000 beautiful souls who passed,” talking of lost “parents, children, cousins, neighbors, classmates, colleagues, friends and our cherished loved ones,” she announced that the toll also included her only sister, Mercia.

“She joins the legion of angels who have gone home too soon due to the pandemic,” the mayor said in a statement.

Mercia Bowser, who had spent her life helping children, older people and people with behavior disorders while working for Catholic Charities and the city’s Office on Aging, died on Wednesday morning, the mayor announced. She was 64. The mayor said her sister had been treated for pneumonia related to the virus at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

Credit…Bowser family

It was the latest reminder that the virus has been unsparing while killing more than 500,000 people in the United States, spreading from nursing homes to grocery stores to the White House and through other halls of government. And it was another sign of just how severe and disproportionate the virus’s impact has been on Black people.

Even if the disease strikes the overall population somewhat evenly, the risks of death are far less uniform, said Yesim Sayin Taylor, the executive director of the D.C. Policy Center, a research organization. The white population in Washington, a transient city for many, is relatively young and well-off, she said. Black residents, many of whom were born and raised in the city, tend to be older and working class.

“We have a large share of the Black population that may be equally likely to get the disease but more likely to die because of comorbidities,” Ms. Taylor said, attributing much of this risk discrepancy to historical inequities that the pandemic has brutally exposed.

Mayor Bowser and her sister, who was 16 years older, grew up in a family with deep roots in Washington politics — the city’s politics, where Black people rose to power and influence, as opposed to the other Washington, the seat of national government, where racial progress lagged. Their father, Joe, was an advisory neighborhood commissioner and a driving force behind Muriel Bowser, who served on the D.C. Council and was first elected mayor in 2014.

While the mayor spent much of last year as a self-described “defender of Washington, D.C.,” clashing with the Washington run by Donald J. Trump, Mercia Bowser spent her days far from the national spotlight. She tapped her network of pulpits and social service agency boards across the city trying to match needs — of people who were homeless, addicted, disabled — with assistance, at a time when life was a challenge even for the comfortable.

“You can look at her like a connector,” said Masica Jordan, who runs a peer recovery group on whose board Ms. Bowser sat. “I did hear her talk a lot about making sure the community had the resources to fight Covid. Instead of just having resources for people to come get, she wanted resources to go to the people.”

The community needed the help.

The Rev. Ricky D. Helton, who leads the Israel Metropolitan Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, which Ms. Bowser often attended, said at least two other families at the church had recently made funeral arrangements for loved ones who died of Covid-19. Several other congregants at the African-American church had fallen ill with the virus, he said, one of whom is now in the hospital.

“We’ve had our share of it,” Mr. Helton said. “It has impacted us quite a bit.”

Mercia Bowser spent her life helping children, older people and people with behavior disorders while with Catholic Charities and the city’s Office on Aging.
Credit…Bowser family

Those who knew Ms. Bowser described her as selfless and determined, qualities that persisted even as her health declined and she lost her sight several years ago because of diabetes. She continued attending church, using a service dog to find her way to her regular spot in a corner of the pews.

“People who could not speak for themselves, she was their microphone,” said Daniel W. Thomas, a chef in Washington.

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He would know.

More than 30 years ago, when Mr. Thomas was about 1, social workers rescued him from a troubled home, he said. Ms. Bowser, who was working at Catholic Charities, saw him and immediately fell in love with him. Wanting to find him a good home, she called up one of her best friends, a pastor, and told him he needed to adopt the baby.

Ms. Bowser never had children of her own, but Mr. Thomas considered her his godmother. She was one of the first people he called when he learned he would be a chef at the U.S. Capitol, and when he served salmon and hamburgers to former President Barack Obama and his family as part of his inauguration festivities. Ms. Bowser, he said, had always pushed him to pursue his passion.

“I’m just trying to think about where would I be if that hadn’t happened,” Mr. Thomas said on Thursday, about a week after he had her taken to a hospital when she complained about not being able to breathe.

When Mr. Thomas was a teenager and Ms. Bowser’s health began to worsen, their roles reversed, and he said he started to “pay back the favor and blessing” that she had given him. He drove her to doctor’s appointments and visited her often; she eventually made him her power of attorney, he said.

Mr. Thomas said she first began feeling ill two weeks ago, and he drove her to a hospital where she tested positive for Covid-19. The doctors said it was safer for her to stay at home, but a few days later, she called him again: “Baby, it’s hard for me to breathe,” he recalled her saying over the phone. He had her taken to a hospital again, and before long, her condition worsened and she was put in an intensive care unit.

Her siblings, including the mayor, were able to visit her before she was intubated, Mr. Thomas said. Shortly before she died, he was able to visit her one more time, and he held a phone to her ear so that close friends unable to visit could give their goodbyes.

“I rubbed her head and realized it was close to the end,” he said.

Even as Mr. Thomas was grieving on Thursday, he was also thinking of Ms. Bowser’s humor, and her excitement at seeing those she loved thrive. He recalled the day he had been tasked with making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for Mr. Obama, a far cry from the multiple-course meals he often prepared for lawmakers and celebrities.

“You go, boy,” he recalled Ms. Bowser saying. “You better have cut the edges off.”

Mitch Smith contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.