Leon High School senior’s protest of Trump over COVID-19 goes viral in mini documentary

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

When there was an outcry during the summer from most people because COVID-19 kept them cooped up, Maddelena “Maddie” Kaji was grieving.
The coronavirus had taken more from her than the pleasure of being able to mingle with others. What she was experiencing made it difficult for her to understand the angst she was seeing in reactions from not being able to go outdoors.

“In the back of my mind, I was like, well my granddad just died in this horrible, horrible way,” said Kaji, a 17-year-old senior at Leon High School. “It was just frustrated. I felt so isolated.”

When COVID-19 took the life of her grandfather, Vikram Hiralal Kaji and his wife Andrea Todd Lewis Kaji committed suicide after his death, it ended a love story between a couple who had been married for more than 40 years. Their passion for family inspired a resolute relationship with their offspring.

Maddie, as Kaji is affectionately known, has been sharing her grandparents’ story with the nation. She wrote an op-ed that has been published by newspapers round Florida. That led to a mini documentary — “Maddie’s Grandparents: A Preventable Covid Tragedy” — on YouTube, which led to cable news channels picking up the story.

At the heart of the documentary is Kaji’s frustration with President Donald Trump’s handling of the virus from the outset. In the video, a production of Brave New Films, Maddie took Trump to task for what she considered insensitive comments after he was treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for the virus.

In his first public appearance after being released, Trump insisted that the virus will “disappear.” He also suggested that the public shouldn’t “let it dominate, don’t let it take over your lives.”

One of the cherished moments for Maddie (right) is when she and her sister, Anna (center) spent time with their grandfather.
Photo submitted

That didn’t go over well with Maddie or her father Argun Kaji, who is a Tallahassee radiologist. He is also featured in the video.

Trump’s action is “a punch in the gut,” he said in one segments. “That’s the only father I will ever have and he is gone.”

Maddie was just as intense in her reaction to Trump.

“Because of his negligence and failure to act beforehand, my grandparents got sick and my grandparents passed away,” she said.
She said she felt insulted when Trump mocked mask wearing and downplayed the virus in the face of the relatives of more than 200,000 victims who are mourning. It also angered her that Trump suggested that victims of the virus who became chronically ill or died weren’t tough enough.

“My grandparents were tough,” she said. “They fought so hard so that it hurts pretty badly.”

Maggie’s grandfather was an immigrant OB/GYN from Mumbai, India who lived in Philadelphia where he raised his family. He contracted COVID-19 while in an assisted living facility with his wife Andrea, who also tested positive.

“She wanted my dad to be there,” Kaji said in the documentary. “She didn’t want to be alone. He wanted to be where she was.”
Vikram succumbed to COVID-19 in April and three months later Andrea died.

“Seeing them go through that (and) seeing the passing is traumatic,” said Arjun, who was at the hospital where his father died. “There is no other way to say it. It’s painful. You could never forget it.”

His parent’s love story started in the early 1960’s at Mercy Hospital in Trenton, N.J., where Vikram was an OB/GYN . She was a candy striper at the hospital.

Maggie’s reaction to Trump fell into the wheelhouse of Brave New Films. Producer Robert Greenwald said it surfaced at a time when the non-profit production company was looking for a similar story.

The Kaji’s story is one of the most compelling the Brave New Films has done in the last six months, he said.

“What I try to do is put a face on policy,” Greenwald said. “Newspapers, reporters, journalists, authors, think tanks; they all do valuable and different functions in terms of telling stories. We try to put a face there so it not just the idea of voter suppression or economic inequality or COVIOD.”
Some of the other social justice issues that the company has featured either in mini or full-length documentaries include the NRA, voter suppression and a look into the Koch Brothers.

Greenwald said he found Maggie’s story compelling because of its “purity and integrity.”

“The thing about grandparents is they are so meaningful,” he said.

“Grandparents in so many ways are so pure. Well, the idea that her grandparents were killed unnecessarily and this wonderful and accomplished young woman is paying a price for policy. A policy that didn’t protect her, didn’t protect her family (and) did not protect over 200,000 others who died. They were impactful people to talk about it.”

Production on the mini documentary began in early September. By then, Maddie was already involved with protesting several other COVID-related issues.

Her first protest was over Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order to reopen schools. She also stood with Physicians for Social Responsibility when the governor refused to put in place a mask mandate.

At that time, she was a little apprehensive because she was still grieving the loss of her grandparents.

“It was hard to open up and talk about the sort of things that I hadn’t really addressed in months in front of so many people,” she said.

She has since helped to organize a coalition of teachers, students, and administrators to form Leon for a Safe Return to Campus.

“That was really special for me because it was a way for me to honor my grandfather,” said Maggie, who is taking classes online.

The attention that her story is receiving is a lot more than she expected. However, she said, her family is finding it therapeutic.

“Getting to open up like this and talk about it has really helped us feel the things we need to feel,” she said. “Accept it and move on.”