Here at NPQ, we have, from time to time, paused to reflect on the toll that COVID-19 has wrought, noting a few of the countless leaders in nonprofits and social movements who have fallen to the virus. Around Memorial Day, the virus’s toll in the US reached 100,000 lives lost, including activists such as longtime HIV-AIDS advocate Garry Bowie, director of Being Alive in West Hollywood, California; and Lorena Borjas, who had supported transgender women in the Queens borough of New York City. In mid-November, we paused again and lifted up a few more community leaders who had lost their lives to the virus, as the nation passed one quarter-million dead.
Throughout, there has been little official acknowledgement of the loss. Communities instead created makeshift memorials to honor the dead. Bethesda-based artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, who organized a memorial of flags at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC, noted that, “This had to happen because people have nowhere to put their grief. They need society to acknowledge that they’ve lost a loved one.” The flags have since been taken down, but Firstenberg is working with George Washington University’s anthropology department to put together a digitalized recreation of her art installation.
This week, the nation passed 400,000 fatalities from COVID-19, and that number now tops 410,000. In a single year, the number of Americans who died from the virus outstretched the 407,316 US soldiers who died during the four years of its participation in World War II. The surge in deaths since November means that while it took nearly six months to go from 100,000 dead to 250,000 dead, it took only two more months for the death toll rise to 400,000.
In 2021, however, with a new president comes a very different response. The day before the Inauguration, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris visited the Lincoln Memorial, where they participated in a short but moving public memorial, with 400 lights turned on to honor the 400,000 lost. As Peter Baker noted in the New York Times, “The evocative ceremony provided a moment of catharsis that the nation has not experienced until now.” Many other cities, including Seattle, Houston, and New York, joined in the commemoration.
The lack of official memorialization of COVID, at least until now, is not unprecedented. As Zachary Small of National Public Radio noted last month, “Despite 50 million people worldwide dying from an influenza virus a century ago…the 1918 flu pandemic is barely remembered in statues and stone.” But he adds, this failure to memorialize has come at a cost. “Some historians have suggested that the lack of memorials contributed to a mass amnesia around the disease, which in turn may have contributed to a lack of preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic,” Small writes.
At the ceremony in Washington this past Tuesday, registered nurse Lori Marie Key, assigned to the COVID unit at St. Mary Mercy Livonia hospital in Michigan, sang the hymn “Amazing Grace,” a song she had sung before to comfort her coworkers. Livonia is located in Wayne County (county seat Detroit) and has alone seen 93,000 coronavirus cases. Prior to Key singing, Biden remarked, “If there are any angels in heaven, they’re all nurses. We know from our family experience what you do, the courage and pain you absorb for