On a foggy Sunday morning in 1987, we stood on the National Mall to hear a roll call of the dead.
At the unveiling of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt at the second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Washington, D.C., the names of those who died from AIDS, represented by nearly 2,000 multicolored panels, were read aloud. It was a solemn memorial, marked by the anger and tears of mothers mourning sons, lovers grieving lovers, and desperately ill people who used what energy remained to bear witness to those lost to a virus.
It was also an indictment of the Reagan administration’s willful neglect of its citizens during a pandemic — exactly what Cleve Jones, the project’s founder, envisioned.
“From the get-go, the quilt was political,” Jones told me recently. “It was made to be displayed on the National Mall in front of Congress and the White House as evidence of their failure, and the consequences of their failure." That’s why, he said, each panel’s shape and size was intended to evoke the dimensions of a grave.
“The most glaring similarity [between AIDS and COVID-19],” Jones said, “is that both pandemics emerged with a president in the White House who did not perceive the gravity of the situation, and who made light of it.”
This Memorial Day, we are a nation enveloped in death. As we reflect on the service members who sacrificed their lives in wars, we will also mourn all who were sacrificed by the Trump administration’s arrogance, stupidity, and rancid politics during this pandemic.
Soon, the country’s coronavirus death toll will surpass 100,000, the highest count worldwide. This comes as new models from Columbia University suggest that 36,000 lives could have been saved if the country began social distancing measures just a week earlier in March.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer asked Trump to order flags lowered to half staff on public buildings to honor COVID-19 victims. In a letter to the president, they said it “would serve as a national expression of grief so needed by everyone in our country.”
Though Trump has falsely claimed that the numbers of COVID-19 deaths are inflated, he acquiesced late Thursday. Still, we have been largely left to grieve on our own.
That’s easier said than done. In memorializing an ongoing tragedy of such magnitude, “we’re constrained by the limits of our imagination,” said Reverend Rahsaan Hall, the racial justice program director for the ACLU of Massachusetts.
“For me, provoking people to reflection is what would be key [in memorializing the COVID-19 dead],” he said, suggesting a day of remembrance as a memorial. It “allows us to recognize that there was a significant loss, but we should also learn from it. That’s the other function memorials serve — to mark a spot in history where something dramatic happened that created a shift in our understanding of the world. I look at it as an opportunity to recalibrate who we are.”
Like the AIDS quilt, there are memorials in real time marking the coronavirus era. Online, there’s Faces of COVID (@FacesOfCOVID) which offers thumbnail sketches of those who’ve died. Across the country, murals are being painted to champion the wearing of masks and to remember the pandemic’s victims. At Boston’s Grant AME Church, “prayer ribbons” adorn an outer wall, each numbered for COVID-19 deaths in Massachusetts, now more than 6,000.
“People have reached out to me to create [their own] quilt-inspired memorial to those who’ve lost their lives,” Jones said. From those first panels he made with a few friends more than 30 years ago, the AIDS quilt now has more than 50,000. Since 1981, the virus as killed more than 630,000 people nationwide. There is still no vaccine.
Of this new pandemic, Jones said, “I think we’re going to see people coming up with some very creative ideas to remember their friends and their family members.”
With coronavirus, our vernacular of grief expands as another administration offers us nothing but carnage, indifference, and an erasure of facts. As so many of us did on that chilly October day on the National Mall, this Memorial Day we must again call out the names of the dead — in remembrance, in love, and as an affirmation of truth.