In the 56 weeks since the first case of Covid-19 was reported in the United States, more than 475,000 Americans have died from the virus — an average of 50 deaths every hour. In the weeks ahead, thousands more will be added to this tragic toll.
We are staggered by our individual losses, buckling under the weight of collective grief. And while this pain is shared, we have by necessity often suffered alone.
But there’s hope. Experts predict that the country will return to some semblance of normalcy within the year. The Biden-Harris Covid-19 strategy promises to accelerate progress. But this optimism brings a new challenge into view: How will America heal from this collective trauma?
On the eve of their inauguration, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris did what Donald Trump failed to do for more than a year: they acknowledged our pain. Illuminated by 400 lanterns lining the Lincoln Memorial’s reflecting pool, each representing 1,000 lives lost to Covid-19, Biden spoke of the need to mend America’s soul. “To heal, we must remember. It’s hard sometimes to remember. But that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation.” His words carried the wisdom of his personal tragedies. And they were a long-needed recognition of America’s own suffering.
Now is the time to begin a national conversation about how we will grieve and memorialize the Covid-19 pandemic. History suggests this won’t be easy. Over the nation’s 244-year history, it has been afflicted by many public health crises. The AIDS Quilt, conceived by San Francisco gay rights activists in 1985 to memorialize lives lost to a different virus, is perhaps the best example we have. The quilt’s patchwork reflects the thousands of loved ones who died from the disease.
For most other public health disasters, however, no such memorialization exists. An estimated 675,000 Americans died of the flu in 1918 and 1919, yet there is a dearth of memorials to commemorate this and other public health crises.
This lack of precedent will challenge us as we imagine how to memorialize the enormity of our country’s loss. What must we consider as this conversation begins?
First, we’ll need to consider the disturbing confluence of triumphs and tragedies in America’s response to Covid-19. Some memorials celebrate the sacrifices of ordinary citizens living extraordinary lives. Monuments to national heroes help us tell positive stories about ourselves and the kind of nation we strive to be. A Covid-19 memorial should recognize all kinds of heroes in this pandemic, like the health care workers, essential employees, teachers, and scientists, among others, who have worked tirelessly to keep our nation afloat.
But while there have been triumphs, America’s political response to the pandemic has, to now, been punctuated by breathtaking failures. Health care workers have faced unprecedented challenges in securing the support they need. Many have died as a result. Anti-scientific forces within the Trump administration hampered efforts to save lives. And the false dichotomy between preventing the spread of Covid-19 or saving the economy is still a favored talking point among ideologues.
A Covid-19 monument or memorial ought to reflect the shame of these failures in addition to honoring the heroes. When we memorialize the victims of shameful acts, it is a clarion call of conscience to “never forget.” To never forget the evil of the holocaust. To never forget the abomination of slavery and the brutalization of Black Americans during Jim Crow. “Never forget” is a prayer that future generations will not make the same mistakes. For a Covid-19 memorial to truly reflect the drama of America’s response, it must remind us of the bad even as it uplifts the good.
Second, we’ll need to consider how a Covid-19 monument will reflect the visceral feelings we are having here and now. Memorials connect us to the past by re-inscribing memories, even painful ones. They distill the essence of a moment in time for future generations to experience. The 9/11 memorial in New York City, a void in the heart of one of the world’s busiest cities, reifies absence: of buildings and of people. A promenade of hanging iron blocks in Alabama’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice forces us to confront the lives lost to America’s shameful history of lynching. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. is a granite Book of the Dead in which the living are reflected in polished granite among the etched names of those who died.
What visceral feelings of this pandemic should be captured in a Covid-19 memorial? One will be the enormity of loss. Suzanne Firstenberg, a Maryland artist, has tried to represent this in her installation of flags for each Covid-19 death. Another will be lost time. Rather than an abrupt tear in our national fabric, the pandemic has been an extended unraveling. The scale and span of the pandemic have left many numb to the enormity of loss. The feeling of being alone together might be still another.
Third, we’ll have to consider who and what will be honored. The United States is likely to lose more than a half million Americans to Covid-19. But even this staggering number underestimates the pandemic’s true toll. Lack of testing early in the pandemic means that some Covid-19 deaths were never counted. Deaths indirectly linked to the pandemic haven’t been counted either.
Americans have also experienced losses other than death. Those with “long-haul Covid” are still experiencing debilitating impairments and may have life-long disabilities. Thousands of businesses are shuttered, millions have lost jobs, and families have slipped into poverty. Children have experienced learning losses. Food insecurity and domestic violence have increased, as have mental health problems. Each of these losses is worthy of acknowledgement. But should we memorialize them all?
Decisions about which losses count in a monument or memorial can be fraught with controversy. Guidelines for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, for instance, specified that those who died in combat should be included on the wall while those who died from Agent Orange exposure or post-traumatic stress disorder should not. Through impassioned advocacy, however, these latter sacrifices have been memorialized on a nearby plaque through the In Memory program. Memorials might not initially reflect the losses that we come to think they should, but they are living spaces and can evolve.
The memorial ceremony held by Biden and Harris at the edge of the reflecting pool was the first time Americans came together to collectively mourn our losses from Covid-19. The image of the 400 lanterns was cathartic. The ceremony affirmed that we need more time and space to make sense of our suffering.
But lanterns can be extinguished. Ceremonies are transient and, in time, forgotten. We need a monument to heal our monumental suffering. We need a monument to never forget.
Andrew Peterson is an assistant professor of philosophy in the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University. Jason Karlawish is a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and author of The Problem of Alzheimer’s. Emily Largent is an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.