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Opinion: Start memorializing Covid-19’s victims now

The Biden administration has put forward rhetoric on memorializing the pandemic—often invoking the claim “To heal, we must remember.” However, national leaders have not really reckoned with the meaning of loss on this scale. When grieving family members appealed to Congress earlier this year for recognition of Covid deaths, they were rebuffed.

This may be an attempt to avoid provoking some Republican voters and GOP leaders, who see the pandemic as a partisan issue. Yet this disserves communities — both Democrat and Republican — that have buried their loved ones. As part of a stronger public message about the continuing losses, the Biden administration should designate a day to remember Covid deaths and establish a permanent National Covid Memorial.

Given the murky, contentious nature of the pandemic, the prospect of a memorial may seem hard to swallow. Many are likely to feel it cannot be summarized in a symbol, in part because Americans do not agree about its greater meaning. And indeed, given the intense political contestation surrounding Covid-19, a memorial to Covid deaths might even draw vandalism, like the bust of George Floyd in New York City’s Union Square.

Yet the process of memorializing losses is always contested. The Vietnam Memorial, which is now seen as iconic, prompted enormous public criticism for its starkly minimalist style. As recent debates over Confederate monuments have underscored, memorials represent an opportunity to begin a conversation; they are not the final word about how we will remember events.

The administration might prefer to wait, given that it is difficult to imagine memorializing events that are not over. Indeed, the story of the Covid-19 pandemic is still being written. Yet the nation should not wait for a post-pandemic moment—if it ever arrives—to signal support for the families and communities assimilating enormous and often shocking losses.

Other ongoing public health crises have been memorialized. The National AIDS Memorial Grove was established 25 years ago in San Francisco to consecrate a space for remembering the enormous and often unacknowledged costs of that disease, which were, throughout the 1980s and beyond, at risk of being forgotten by much of the general public.

The Biden administration has already gestured toward public commemoration by establishing temporary memorials like Firstenberg’s “In America: Remember” installation. Earlier this year, 400 floating lanterns in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool symbolized the 400,000 Covid deaths recorded to date. But Biden’s messaging on the pandemic has largely oriented Americans toward an optimistic future, encouraging the public to accept vaccination and, most recently, to get booster shots.

While it is important to continue communicating about preventing Covid—and while such messaging also needs some fine-tuning to have maximum impact—we are letting down affected communities by avoiding the hard work of remembering.

Activist Rima Samman, who lost her brother to Covid last year, created an impromptu memorial on the beach of Belmar, New Jersey to honor his memory. Soon after, she began receiving messages from people across the country requesting she add the names of their loved ones. As the memorial of stones and seashells grew, she said she realized “how desperate we all are for something tangible.”

Designating an official day of remembrance and establishing a physical memorial would be, in a sense, the least we can do to honor the suffering of our country’s families and communities. We should not allow our shame about doing the least get in the way of starting to move Covid losses into public conversation.

Understandably, Americans feel discomfort with the politics of the pandemic; we are uncertain about the meaning of Covid deaths; we want to move on. We may also be reluctant to make a gesture seen as symbolic. But symbols matter. Once spaces to remember the pandemic are established, we should leverage their symbolic power to support demands for making the health of all Americans a priority in government policy.

When the Covid-19 pandemic began, it prompted Americans to look back to similar events; notably, the 1918 influenza pandemic. Journalists were surprised to discover the epochal experience had left almost no trace in public culture, with little more than a stone bench in Barre, Vermont to remind posterity of the 50 million deaths worldwide caused by the flu a century ago.
Covid-19 has now killed many more Americans than the 1918 influenza pandemic; beloved and precious relatives who died of a preventable disease. We are called to remember them. Their memory deserves at least another bench.
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