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We Need a National Memorial for the Covid Dead

Written By Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley. megelison.com

There is only one American memorial to the victims of the Great Influenza epidemic of 1918, the so-called Spanish Flu. An estimated 675,000 Americans died over four years of brutally ebbing and flowing pandemic. Like the one we’re in now, that pandemic had its naysayers, its anti-maskers, its stubborn folks insisting it would one day disappear if we just ignored it hard enough. Like the one we’re in now, people tried hard to forget.

The memorial to the victims of the pandemic of 1918 is a single stone bench in a Vermont cemetery. It was installed in 2018, one hundred years after those deaths began. Some historians believe that a lack of permanent memorial space to the dead in that pandemic contributed to the memory-holing of the event, and to our subsequent incompetence and lack of readiness for the next mass disabling and deadly disease.

Many cities and communities created temporary shrines or places to list the names of the dead in the immediate wake of the first few hundred thousand deaths attributed the coronavirus. In February of 2021, the New York Times used its entire front page to print the names of the dead; at that time, a half million people.

As these temporary gestures began to fade, several cities and other organizations created online or virtual memorial spaces that weren’t subject to the argument over space, money, and the political symbolism of placing our tragedy right in the middle of our commons. Chicago maintains a memorial wall on its city website. A citizen of the city of St. Louis built one for her community, unsatisfied by the city’s memorial efforts on behalf of the dead. Survivors of Covid dead in Arizona started Marked By Covid, a national website dedicated to memorializing those lost from all over the United States online and in an augmented reality space.

The Vietnam War killed 58,000 Americans, most of whom were military personnel. Designed by architect Maya Lin, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial spans two acres of parkland in the nation’s capital. The Vietnam War ended in 1975; this memorial was built seven years later in 1982, with hundreds of soldiers still listed as “missing in action.”

Permanent memorials to those who have died of Covid tend to be a lot smaller, and so far there is no plan for a federal government memorial, or one placed in Washington D.C., beyond 600,000 miniature American flags that were temporarily stuck into the grass on the National Mall in September of 2021. Nor is there much interest in the statehouses for permanent memorials to those who lost their lives in this pandemic. Instead, private citizens have led the charge, erecting their own spaces in defiance of the forgetfulness that seems an integral part of our national character.

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    First in the nation came an installation on Belmar Beach in New Jersey, and later relocated to a farm, featuring stones with the names of those passed written on them. Rose Hills cemetery in Whittier, California planted a memorial tree for victims of the novel coronavirus, as did San Antonio Regional Hospital in Texas. A few states took the initiative to create permanent memorials to those who have passed. Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio dedicated a memorial grove in April of 2021. Governor Andy Beshear also dedicated a statue to the victims of Covid, although the text and didactics of the piece stray far from the identities of the dead or the pandemic itself, focusing instead on the Kentucky state motto: “United we stand; divided we fall.”

    Irvine, California is home to the Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial. Modeled on the Vietnam Veteran’s memorial wall, this site honors the approximately 7,000 American service members who died in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation New Dawn (commonly known as the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars) between 2001 and 2014. The city of Irvine made this memorial happen in 2003 and continued its construction through 2010, recognizing that we can create space to grieve for people even before death is done rolling through.

    Labor unions have also created permanent memorials to their members lost to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York put up a plaque in Brooklyn listing the names of their dead. The New York City department of sanitation did the same, with a freestanding and permanent memorial statue. New York’s Metropolitan Transport Authority maintains an online memorial to its workers who have died of Covid. Sanitation and transport workers alike belong to the essential classes of workers who kept vital city systems running during stay-at-home orders. Many typically unsung professions saw heavy losses among people who cannot work from home: healthcare workers, cooks, delivery personnel, security guards and others.

    There are proposed permanent memorial sites on a grander scale, meant to stand as a reminder of the over 1.1 million Americans who have died (and are still dying) of Covid-19. These include plans in New York City and Boston, and who knows where else they might one day spring up. Larger memorials or a national memorial might keep us out of the memory hole, where we put things we want to forget.

    When we never want to forget, we make it big. The National September 11th Memorial & Museum takes up 16 acres in one of the busiest and most dense cities in the United States. It covers the grounds of the original World Trade Center Complex. The site includes a memorial grove, the deeply dug-out footprints belonging to the twin towers, and a list of the 2,977 people who died on September 11, 2001, as well as the six people killed in the WTC bombing in 1993.

    Covid is not over. We’ve lost so much and so many, and we are still losing people to it, every day. We have not dealt with the number of people who died, partly because we’re not ready to face how poorly we have managed an event for which we had every possible resource and plenty of time to prepare. We cannot forget.

    A national memorial to the people who have died of Covid-19 is a good place to start.