BY Nicole Fox
This week, the death toll of Americans who have died from COVID-19 surpassed 50,000. To put that number in perspective, it is more than twenty times the number of Americans who died in hurricane Katrina, thirteen times as many who died in 9/11, and about three times the number of Americans who died from all forms of gun violence in 2019. And, this is when COVID-19 is still peaking. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicts that by August 2020 the death toll could triple, making the coronavirus deadlier for Americans than the Vietnam War.
By the end of summer, if not sooner, our country, and nations around the world will have experienced significant collective grief due to lives lost by COVID-19. Many communities, such as New York City, are already in this dark place, as the magnitude of death has required mass graves, with entire families dying deprived of traditional funerals, or the basic need to hold the hand of their loved one, as they move from this life to whatever is next. Such stories signal it is time for us, as a nation, to think about how to commemorate, possibly in less traditional ways than ever before, the historic spread of COVID-19, and the accompanying loss.
In the aftermath of deadly natural disasters, wars, and mass violence, communities across the world often create memorials to honor lost lives, providing a place for future generations to learn, grieve, and remember. Some of the most familiar American memorials include the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC and the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan. In fact, researchers who study the process of memory-making have noted a contemporary shift toward memorialization, exemplified in the emergence of memorials commemorating recent tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina and mass shootings (Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, and Orlando all have memorials in the making). Less traditional memorialization efforts like art and activism have also taken shape in the U.S., such as the AIDS quilt remembering approximately 94,000 people.
Memorials are a vehicle that transitions us from collective trauma to recovery. I have found this to be true in my own work, on memorials in Rwanda. The genocide survivors I have been interviewing over the past decade have shared that memorials matter greatly in their lives. Since the 1994 Genocide, Rwandans have built close to 500 memorials dedicated to commemorating the violence that claimed the lives of upwards of one million people in less than 100 days. These sites are spaces to honor loved ones and learn about the past, in an effort to create a brighter future.
In 2012, for my book project on genocide memorialization, I interviewed a woman whose entire family was among the 5000 people who perished in a local church when it was bombed by the militia. Today, she lives across from the church-turned-memorial- where her families’ remains are housed. She visits the memorial often to pray, honor her family, or even to meet people to discuss community happenings. She asserted that the memorial “gave her life” when she lost the will to live.
The genocide in Rwanda and COVID-19 are most certainly qualitatively different tragedies. However, the violence that took place in Rwanda devastated the institutions which people depend on to build a meaningful life–family, education, religion, etc.–making the effort to create new structures critical for survival, similar to the changes emerging in America. Like COVID-19, the genocide in Rwanda unfolded fast and often people did not have, as one survivor told me, “the luxury” to properly mourn their beloved’s death. This has made memorials even more important for some survivors.
To make memorials effective we have to safeguard the memories of the diverse lives lost, and acknowledge the inequality that the virus has exploited. As we devise ways to memorialize, we must ask difficult questions about why lives lost to COVID-19 are disproportionately poor and people of color. In order for those of us who are living to serve proudly as a witness to the loss, we are obligated to remember the pain, inequality, and the failures that risked and stole lives. We can “give life” to those who need it most, through thoughtful memorialization efforts, that must start now. In order for memory to heal, memorialization requires us to face difficult pasts-even as they continue to unfold- with honesty, courage and dignity.