Popular community activist shares how he beat COVID-19

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BAMANI OBADELE, a community activist and father of five, lived to share his tale about the fight against COVID-19 after contracting the virus in early April. 

By Stephanie Gadlin

Special Correspondent Bamani Obadele is a longtime fixture in Illinois politics and the continuing fight for racial justice. With his thunderous voice and imposing presence, the social justice warrior has been on the frontlines for more than three decades battling some of the city’s toughest issues.

Yet, nothing could prepare the outspoken organizer for his greatest battle yet, contracting a deadly virus that was ravishing nations and disrupting economics across the globe. Obadele initially believed Black people were immune to the contagion until he spent nearly six weeks fighting for his life after testing positive for the virus  in early April.

“I was letting (information) go in one ear and out the other. The coronavirus was over in China and Italy, it wasn’t where I lived. I didn’t take it that seriously,” Obadele said. “The news was all over the place, sometimes contradicting earlier reports. Then this rumor started (suggesting) that Black people couldn’t get the virus—and I was going along with that. People said it was a plot; it was fake—people I even knew was saying this stuff. Boy, was I wrong.”

By then, COVID-19 that had already claimed the lives of scores of local African Americans including youth mentor Harold Davis, 63, who died April 12, and 87-year-old Archbishop Lucius Hall, founder and pastor of First Church of Love and Faith, who died 10 days earlier. Patricia Frieson, a Black 61-year-old retired nurse, was the first person to die of coronavirus in Illinois on March 16 but her virus-related death wasn’t reported publicly until two days later.

“When it hit me, I found myself writing out my last wishes on some paper and sticking them on my desk at home,” Obadele told the Crusader.

“I thought I was going to die, and after they found me, I wanted my children to know that I loved them and what my wishes were. Even though I was scared, I knew if I had any chance of surviving this thing, I’d have to build my immune system and keep the faith. My doctor said I had strong lung capacity and that was working in my favor. ”

The 47-year-old father of five, who works as community engagement director for Acctivulst, an anti-violence organization, believes he contracted the disease while canvassing during the March 17 Primary.  “I must have come in contact with over 200 people,” he explained. “When the governor took action, I began taking precautions, and made sure some of the guys out in the field had hand sanitizer and personal protection equipment (PPE).”

The political activist said within a week of the Primary, and shortly after Illinois residents were mandated to quarantine themselves, he began to experience symptoms.

“It started with a fever around April 4 and the symptoms progressed as the days went on,” Obadele said. “I was shivering even though my temperature went through the roof. After a few days of bouncing back and forth, the virus hit me like a knockout punch. I couldn’t breathe.

“My chest was tightening up. I couldn’t taste my food and I lost all sense of smell. A pot was burning on the stove and I was only alerted by the fire alarm and a kitchen full of smoke. I couldn’t smell a thing,” he said. “I have never felt pain like that before.”

After consulting with his personal physician, Obadele was told he’d be admitted to Northwestern Memorial Hospital and placed on a ventilator, But after seeing the isolated, stark treatment area, he declined.

“Something told me that if I let them put me on a respirator I would never leave the hospital,” he said. “I couldn’t see myself being in there alone, without anyone in my family being able to advocate for me. So, I told my doctor I’d take my chances at home. I know it was the right thing, in my case.”

Obadele credits good medical advice, a strong support network of family, friends and nutrition experts with saving his life.

He kept a 9-1-1 emergency dial on his phone’s interface. “I knew to keep breathing so all I could do was to take short, quick breaths. My doctor told me to sleep on my stomach, continue with my antibiotics, drink tea and to turn on a vaporizer with medicated steam. The support group sent me immune boosting supplements, vegan beverages, citrus fruits, soup and other natural remedies. They’d just leave them at my front door. I took them all.”

“There were times I closed my eyes and didn’t know if I’d open them up again,” he said. “So, I stayed hydrated, I did what was prescribed and used the immune-boosting remedies from my friends. Even though I could barely walk, I forced myself onto my feet and kept moving about my home. I also had a lot of conversations with God. And, then after a week of ups and downs, (the virus) broke. I still isolated myself for another two weeks.”

According to the Illinois Department of Health (IDPH) there have been 84,619 tested positive cases for the novel coronavirus and 3,792 people have died. To date, 489,359 people in the state have been tested. More than half of all Illinois infections have been in Cook County where it has struck the African American and Latino communities the hardest.

Nationally, nearly 1.5 million Americans have contracted the virus, causing 83,953 related deaths. More than 1,518,424 people have recovered, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Governor J.B. Pritzker extended the emergency shelter in place order effective through the end of May. It also required mandatory face coverings in public places and work sites and set social distancing guidelines, among other regulations.

“I’ve been educating all who will listen to take this pandemic seriously,” Obadele said. “After they finish the trials, I will be among those who will take the vaccine. I’m not taking a risk with my life. And, I won’t “be out there advocating against it.”

A young Obadele, then living in Robert Taylor Homes, first emerged on the activist scene in 1997 after a 13-year-old Black boy was attacked by three white teens. Lenard Clark was beaten after crossing the “invisible color line” that separated a predominantly Black Bronzeville from a mostly white Bridgeport while riding his bike.

The attack left Clark in a coma. Authorities identified his assailants as Victor Jasas, Michael Kwidzinski and 18-year-old Frankie Caruso, the son of a reputed mobster. The trio was convicted after a trial that was so tumultuous that the presiding judge even received a death threat. Caruso was sentenced to eight years in state prison.

Obadele, who worked for the Chicago Area Project at the time, sprang into action organizing residents in his neighborhood against the hate crime He also stood in strong opposition to a handful of African American leaders who supported Clark’s attackers and pleaded for leniency in the subsequent trial—-including Clark’s own mother. “I marched on Prince Asiel and Reverend {B. Herbert} Martin’s church,” he explained. “

Prior to his rise as a community organizer, the once aspiring major league umpire met up-and-coming politician and future Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, as a 17-year-old.

“Rod had a lot to do with me finding a path toward public service,” he said. “I learned how to work campaigns, build strategy and the importance of civic engagement. (Since Blagojevich’s release from federal prison in February), we’ve texted a few times, but we haven’t spoken.”

In 2001, Obadele began speaking out on the allegations of sexual assault against young women by R&B crooner R. Kelly. He organized demonstrations where protestors destroyed compact discs featuring the singer’s music. “I tried to warn the Black community back then that he was a predator. I took a lot of heat back then for doing that,” he said.

Since testing negative for the virus a week ago, Obadele has slowly begun to resume his organizing work, but still limits direct contact with people. He hosts a talk show on WVON-AM, and also is a first responder at hospitals on the South and West sides when there’s been a victim of gun violence. Though he tries to push his experience out of his mind, he can’t help but think of others who were not successful against COVID-19.

“I’m urging local and federal officials to implement a national day of remembrance of all of the people who’ve lost their lives because of the virus,” he said. “People haven’t been able to grieve properly or attend funerals. I think we should lower all the flags in this city at half-staff.  We’ve lost more people in this country than in Pearl Harbor and the Vietnam War at this point—and from a virus.

“We need a large scale memorial for all of these lives that have been lost,” Obadele told the Crusader. “And, it’s important for my community to understand—now isn’t the time to be spending on frivolous things.

This country is headed for a depression and you know how they say, when the dominant group catches a cold, we catch pneumonia—which pales in comparison to the coronavirus.”

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