Marked by COVID Founder Kristin Urquiza Won't Let Politicians Forget Pandemic Deaths

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images | Contributor
San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images | Contributor

"This isn't supposed to be happening." That thought reverberated in Kristin Urquiza's mind over and over again this summer as she watched her otherwise healthy 65-year-old father suffer from COVID-19. "And not just from the perspective of 'My dad shouldn't be sick,'" she told POPSUGAR, "but from this perspective of, something has failed us here. This shouldn't be happening."

Urquiza's father, Mark Urquiza, died on June 30 after a 19-day battle with coronavirus. His only child, Kristin Urquiza, described her father as a vibrant man with another chapter of life left to live alongside his partner, Brenda.

Today, she attributes her father's premature death to his belief in the elected officials he supported. Urquiza said her father, a registered Republican who voted for both Arizona Governor Doug Ducey and President Donald Trump, thought he "had no reason not to believe the people in charge and the information that they were giving him." When Ducey snapped the state back open for business in May, Urquiza said her pleas to her father to follow social-distancing guidelines and wear a mask were easily dismissed. "I lost my ability to have reasonable conversations with my dad because I was competing with the messaging coming out of the White House, which was reinforced in the governor's mansion," she said. The "environment of misinformation coming from the top" was too overwhelming to overcome, even with facts and data on her side.

"My parents taught me that if you see something wrong, you say something."

After his death, Urquiza felt moved to speak out not just for herself and her mother but for all the other families enduring what she viewed as preventable pain. "My parents taught me that if you see something wrong, you say something," she said. So she leveraged the space she'd reserved in the Arizona Republic for her father's obituary to send a pointed condemnation:

Mark, like so many others, should not have died from COVID-19. His death is 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.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - AUGUST 20: Kristin Urquiza holds a photo of herself (center) with her father Mark Urquiza (right) and mother Brenda Urquiza (left) as she stands for a portrait on Thursday, August 20, 2020 in San Francisco, Calif.  Kristin Urquiza, a S
San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images | Contributor

After the obituary ran, people from across the country reached out to Urquiza and thanked her for bringing the pain and senselessness of COVID-19 tragedies into the spotlight. It's the "lack of acknowledgment" from leadership, Urquiza said, that has been "so damaging" — not only to the country's economy but "to the mental and spiritual health and well-being" of a nation grieving over 200,000 lives during a period of social isolation. (That lack of acknowledgment was front and center at the VP debate, where Pence tried to recast the Trump administration's widely criticized pandemic response as a victory, one that brought about "the greatest national mobilization since World War II.") Urquiza's obituary tapped into that well of pain, sending it ping-ponging across the internet until it landed her story — and the coronavirus response organization she'd already managed to launch with partner Christine Keeves, Marked by COVID — on Vice President Joe Biden's campaign's radar.

"We're grieving not just the loss of human lives, but we're also grieving the loss of the world as we knew it to be."

Now one of Biden's strongest surrogates, Urquiza described Marked by COVID to POPSUGAR as a justice group focused on "building back better," to borrow the Vice President's tag line. Marked by COVID, Urquiza said, "really is about building back better to ensure that one, we never forget, and two, we orient ourselves, so we ensure that this never happens again." To achieve those goals, Marked by COVID takes a two-prong approach, collecting stories from people impacted by the virus and also leveraging Urquiza's background in public policy (she earned her master's degree from UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy) to "inspire safer public health policies" that center the most vulnerable populations.

"I obviously come at this from a perspective of having lost somebody," Urquiza said, "but Marked by COVID is not just for folks who have lost somebody." She hopes the organization she and her team have built will be filled out by people who have "born the brunt" of this crisis, whether they've lost someone close to them or not. "People of color, the elderly, front-line workers, healthcare workers, the folks that are disproportionately getting sick, the folks who are disproportionately passing away, the folks who are disproportionately unsure of how they're going to pay rent on Nov. 1" — those are the people Marked by COVID wants to work to protect.

In truth, Marked by COVID is for everyone, something Urquiza hopes comes across in the organization's title. The name "Marked by COVID" was perfect for two reasons: it was a nod to her late father, of course, but it also signified that anyone who has been marked by this pandemic in some way could find community within this group. "We're grieving not just the loss of human lives, but we're also grieving the loss of the world as we knew it to be," she said. Every person living through this extraordinary time is experiencing grief, and Marked by COVID wants to hold space for all of it. "We are a big tent," Urquiza said, here for anyone who needs it. "Everyone's welcome."