US activists call for permanent Covid memorials to help country mourn

Many are eager to return to normal while others struggle to deal with grief and trauma

The Washington Monument is seen reflected after President-elect Joe Biden hosts a memorial to honor those who died from coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, U.S., January 19, 2021.    REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare
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As the US marked one million Covid-19 deaths on Thursday, calls have increased for official, permanent ways to honour those who have died.

Though individual communities, cities and states have organised their own vigils and memorials, activists are working to ensure that those who were lost are not forgotten.

Past memorials

The largest national vigil to date was held by President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in January 2021 on the day the country surpassed 400,000 deaths.

The two spoke in front of a display containing 400 lights, each representing 1,000 lives lost, that were placed along the reflecting pool between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

“To heal, we must remember,” Mr Biden said. “It’s hard sometimes to remember. But that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation.”

In New York City, the local government partnered with The City, a non-profit news publication, to project images of more than 400 local residents who had died from Covid-19 on to the Brooklyn Bridge in April 2021.

And the Washington National Cathedral in the nation's capital has tolled its bell once for every 1,000 deaths every time the country has reached a new 100,000-death milestone.

One of the largest and more well-known memorials was created by artist Suzanne Firstenberg, who planted a field of more than 660,000 white flags on the National Mall in Washington in September and October of 2021.

Each flag represented a Covid-19 death, with some inscribed with people's names as well as messages from their loved ones.

“A woman came from Milwaukee, it was a rainy day … she couldn't get a flight all the way from Milwaukee to [Washington,] DC. So she flew to Columbus [Ohio], rented a car, drove to DC, poured out her loss in the writing of four flags, planted them and walked slowly back to her car and started her journey home,” Ms Firstenberg told The National.

“People came from all over the country to write on a four-by-five inch piece of poly. What that tells you is that there's great power in art. And what it also tells you is that people need desperately need to be acknowledged in their grief.”

The importance of remembering

Many in the US are eager to return to normal, even as the country continues to lead the world in official numbers of cases and deaths. Others, however, are struggling to deal with grief and trauma.

“Continually seeing news around mass infections, disruptions to daily life and mass death keeps at the forefront of our minds that we are in crisis, safety is not guaranteed, and we continue to be at odds with one another insofar as how to best respond,” therapist Matt Glowiak told The National.

“For those who have lost loved ones during the pandemic, know that whatever you are feeling among the stages of grief is normal.”

With a million dead, there are countless people mourning lost loved ones: an Axios survey in February found that at least one in three Americans know someone who has died from Covid-19 and an estimated 200,000 children have lost one or both caregivers to the disease.

“This is about a million people who have are no longer here and how easy it is for us as a society to pretend like this didn't happen,” co-founder of Marked By Covid Kristin Urquiza told The National.

Marked By Covid is a grassroots organisation that provides support services to bereaved families in addition to organising memorial events across the country.

“We cannot normalise mass death. And if we do, we're doomed to repeat not just a pandemic of this epic proportion, but other mass episodes of carnage.”

Ms Urquiza's organisation is working to make sure Americans have a way to process pandemic-related grief.

“We've done a number of memorials, both online memorial vigils, as well as in-person memorial gatherings with our local chapters,” Ms Urquiza said.

“Those memorials have provided spaces to be together cry, honour our loved ones, say their names and remember, but they're also served sort of greater purposes to of making sure that we are remembering this time as a really big deal.”

Marked By Covid is working to create bottom-up memorial designs that can potentially be installed in cities and states across the US.

Dr Glowiak said that in addition to memorials, the US should prioritise equitable and accessible mental health services for Americans in the years to come.

“We must remember that everything begins with our health — mental health being a substantial part of the equation,” he said.

“If people continue struggling here, the impact will trickle down towards everything else.”

The future

Leaders of Marked By Covid are advocating the foundation of a national holiday on the first Monday of March to commemorate those lost to the disease.

Elizabeth Warren, a US senator from Massachusetts, and Greg Stanton, Ms Urquiza's elected representative in Arizona, presented resolutions in their separate chambers in 2021 to have a “Covid-19 Victims and Survivors Memorial Day” in the US.

The resolutions, however, stalled after their introductions.

“We think it's really important that we have not only memorials in space that are permanent, but also in time, so that we can, every single year, take a moment to reflect upon this time and who we lost and the types of impacts that it has had on us,” Ms Urquiza said.

Covid memorials across the US

Joshua Longmore contributed reporting

Updated: May 23, 2022, 11:56 PM