150,000 dead of coronavirus in U.S.: What monument will they have?
A woman passes a fence outside Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery adorned with tributes to victims of COVID-19. The memorial is part of the Naming the Lost project which attempts to humanize the victims who are often just listed as statistics. The wall features banners that say "Naming the Lost" in six languages: English, Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, Yiddish, and Bengali. What kind of permanent memorial will we build to those lost to the Trump administration's criminal incompetence? | Mark Lennihan / AP

We can barely begin to count the multiple overlapping crises in our country right now. You know them all, and doubtlessly you’re dealing with some or all of them in your own life. It’s a struggle not to feel overwhelmed.

One crisis has to do with epic death, grief, and memory. How many are dying now—both from COVID-19 and from natural causes—who receive but a short graveside eulogy with only the most immediate family present, if that? Spouses, siblings, children and grandchildren, workmates, and social friends—most of them must stay home without offering a comforting embrace or shedding a tear together with the other bereaved. Maybe they’ll gather on Zoom to share a treasured memory or anecdote and raise a glass.

A fence outside Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery is adorned with a surgical mask tribute Constantino Sosa, May 28, 2020, in New York during the coronavirus pandemic. | Mark Lennihan / AP

We have a collective grief to deal with in our land, yet from our highest tribunes all we hear is, “This will be over sooner than you know it, nothing to see here, let’s get back to work.”

A brief experiment with reconciliation

An analogy could be made to the American Civil War, in which over half a million of our people were killed either on the battlefield or in makeshift medical tents and hospitals. Our brief experiment with Reconstruction, a national effort toward a just reconciliation, attempted to make those sacrifices count for something: Freedom, representation, compensation, forty acres.

Much of the Reconstruction program was never enacted. It did not last long, thanks in large part to the pro-Southern impeached but not convicted President Andrew Johnson, who proclaimed, “It’s over, folks. Too much wanton democracy going on here, time to get back to what we’re best at.” Sharecropping, tenant farming, wage and debt slavery, no voting rights, separate and not equal, lynching, Ku Klux Klan, terrorism, apartheid American-style.

The country did not have enough time or sufficient unified will to properly heal and bind up her wounds, to repair, restore, renew our family, our democracy. Our grief did not go deep enough. So we moved on as a nation and forgot, and soon some people appropriated our grief.

They built monuments. Not to memorialize the Middle Passage, nor the human auction block, nor the parents separated from their children, the cotton plantation laborers who built a strong economy both South and North, the chain gangs, the forced illiteracy, the false prophets who taught the religion of slavery.

No, their memorials lifted up the trimly uniformed generals on their poised horses, the noble slaveowner patriarchs, the wise legislators of division and contempt, the gallant officers of a traitorous Confederacy, all in the name of tradition, heroism, sacrifice, pride, womanhood, honor. Let all who pass this sanctified place know: This is the new, eternal order of the land. Grieving time is over: Back to your hoes and your kitchen aprons. And to the good ole boys they said, “We know life ain’t always easy, but hey, ya ain’t Black, right?”

And they still tried killing us by the hundreds and thousands and millions. In state penitentiaries, in the mines, sweatshops, factories, and fields, in imperial wars, in poverty and disease, all the while our school children pledged unqualified allegiance to all that star-spangled liberty and justice in this bountiful, brave land of the free for all.

Our teachers didn’t tell us the whole story, our historians entombed the truths that stared out at them from the sources they studied, our preachers roared that God himself separated the races. Perhaps our poets probed deeper with their emotional paeans, odes, and laments, but they lacked the political power to transcend the catharsis of the valley of death and lead us to new, glorious mountaintop heights.

Monuments of the future

We ride the metaphorical train of life, and one after the other hear the conductor announce the cities we pull into. We watch as signposts announce the names of cities and towns and counties, places we know in our bones we will never pass through again in this life.

It was only a few miles back, around Memorial Day, that our nation marked the tragic milestone of 100,000 dead from the COVID-19 pandemic. Two, three, five, fifty, five hundred, five thousand, ten thousand. How did we get to one hundred thousand in only four months’ time?

And we know the number was higher, too, with uncounted deaths unattributed to COVID but that surely were. We know, too, how skewed the numbers are, not only toward older people, but toward African Americans, Latinx, and other people of color. Poorer living standards, poorer healthcare, poorer prevention, what else could we expect?

Pallbearers, who were among only 10 allowed mourners, walk the casket for internment at the funeral for Larry Hammond, who died from the coronavirus, at Mount Olivet Cemetery in New Orleans, April 22, 2020. | Gerald Herbert / AP

As it’s so often said, one death is a tragedy, a thousand is a statistic. But each one of those deaths meant something very special to families, neighbors, co-workers, and communities. We cannot erect a monument in the public square to every one of them, but can we sanctify a statistic? Perhaps the Europeans have a handle on this enormity when they place stones in the sidewalk and plaques on buildings. “In this home lived a Jewish family, the Goldbergers, Heinrich, Ida, Sophie, Karl, and Paul, whom the Nazis deported in 1942 to Auschwitz. All perished there, date unknown.”

We do have some of that here, with our Holocaust memorials and museums. And we also have several Civil Rights museums and historical sites, as well as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, otherwise referred to as the National Lynching Memorial, in Montgomery, Alabama.

How will we remember our tens of thousands, now turning into hundreds of thousands, succumbed to a fatal disease that could have been contained with prompt, dedicated, compassionate, science-led policies, but instead was allowed to extrapolate in some modern macabre version of the medieval Dance of Death? It didn’t have to be, as our epidemiologists warned us. But in this land of the free for all, it was every man, woman, and child for themselves: Good luck and God bless. “I take no responsibility.”

A new milestone

So now we have arrived at a new milestone. One hundred fifty thousand Americans dead. Not from a virus, but from ignorance, neglect, arrogance, superstition, pride, greed, racism, individualism, power-hunger, and willful malevolence.

How do we memorialize these statistics? Do we go back to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall of 58,000+ names, dead, sacrificed on some altar or other—but we are never told whose altar? Did you support that war? Oppose it? No matter, the names are all here for you to meditate upon as you see fit. No controversy, please, especially not in our nation’s capital!

That can’t work for our eventual coronavirus monuments. “We commemorate here the [five hundred thousand? five million?] people in the United States who lost their lives to a terrible worldwide pandemic (2019-20??). May their loved ones find comfort, and the souls of the departed rest in everlasting peace.”

No! There must be some accountability, some justice, truth, and reconciliation, even some names named! How about something like this?

“We memorialize here the [x number of] people in the United States who lost their lives in a terrible worldwide pandemic (2019-20??), the largest number of victims by far of any country on Earth. As U.S. citizens, we take personal and collective responsibility for our inability or unwillingness at the time to recognize the incompetence and heartlessness of the Donald Trump administration to humanely, rationally, and scientifically coordinate an effective response to this fatal disease. The loyal Trump supporters in the Senate had the opportunity to rid the country of this vain and prideful tyrant, who remains to this day a shameful blot on our history, but opted not to when they had the opportunity in his February 2020 impeachment trial. Although the American people voted Trump out of office in the November 2020 presidential election, and also elected a Democratic Senate, we erect this monument in our public square now as a reminder and safeguard forever of our duty and honor as citizens to never again allow such abuse to happen. May all who stand here in the generations to come remember that democracy depends on active participation and righteous resistance to malfeasance. May we never forget the hard lesson we endured in that deadly hour, and may this monument forever serve to honor those sacred dead the Trump administration sacrificed in the name of greed and power.”

A little wordy, maybe; it would require a ton of bronze for that plaque. But that’s the spirit of it: We cannot just assume this pandemic is the “new normal.” It’s not, and it must never be.

On Memorial Day weekend, we listed the names of whole cities of 100,000 that would have been wiped off the map if COVID-19 had been concentrated in one place.

Leonardo Cabana, right, is comforted by his friend Raphael Benevides after the funeral service for his father, Hector Cabana, who died of COVID-19, May 11, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. | John Minchillo / AP

Since that time, we’ve now also surpassed my own birthplace, New Haven, Conn. (a rounded 130,000), and a number of state capitals. I hope the legislators who gather in those Capitol buildings and statehouses take note: Hartford, Conn. (124,000), Lansing, Mich. (115,000), Springfield, Ill. (117,000), Columbia, S.C. (134,000), and Boise, Ida. (146,000). They’d all have been swept up in a rapture of disease.

On the track to 150,000, we’ve now also lost McAllen, Mesquite, and Killeen, Tex.; Dayton, Ohio; Fullerton, Orange, Valencia, Torrance, Pomona, and Pasadena, Calif.; Syracuse, Borough Park, Astoria, and East Hampton, N.Y.; Savannah, Ga.; Bridgeport, Conn.; Naperville, Rockford, and Joliet, Ill.; Paterson, N.J.; Clarksville, Tenn.; Hollywood, Fla.; Kansas City, Kan.; Alexandria, Va.; and Springfield, Mass.

Newspapers during the Vietnam War used to publish running numbers of dead and wounded as a daily reminder of the human cost of that ill-advised criminal adventure. Naturally, they barely ever mentioned how many times that number—many millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians—who were killed, maimed, and poisoned by U.S. attacks.

This is one of our ways of never forgetting our shamefully unnecessary human losses, and to what? To another altar of insanity—the Trump presidency.

Sadly, it must be said: Our dead can never rest in peace until new heights of justice flourish throughout the land. May the day come soon!

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.