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OPINION

How to think about a memorial

How can we best mark this moment — a time when a million deaths from COVID-19 loom large — and we can’t be sure how high that number will climb before the pandemic can be called an endemic?

Fran Hall draws one of the last hearts as people paint red hearts to complete the approximately 150,000 hearts being painted onto the National Covid Memorial Wall to commemorate all those who have died of coronavirus, on the Thames Embankment opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, on April 8, 2021.Frank Augstein/Associated Press

A COVID-19 memorial will continue to resonate and attract visitors as long as the pandemic lasts, but what about the time when it eventually fades from individual and communal memory? What kind of ancillary programs would keep the event and the issues it raised relevant? Could such a memorial also look to the future to consider lessons learned, such as the stark inequity of health care and ways to address it? Would any memorial be enough for the long term or should we think also of a museum, such as those included in the national memorials to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York? But we’re not there yet. How can we best mark this moment — a time when a million deaths from COVID-19 loom large — when we can’t be sure how high that number will climb before the pandemic can be called an endemic?

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Thinking about a million US deaths from COVID-19 is overwhelming. There have been so many individual and communal losses due to the pandemic, and we are still calculating the extent of the larger societal damage caused by the virus. Unfortunately, everything these days is wrapped in a miasma of political issues: the failure to act promptly on scientific evidence of the pandemic, the opposition to wearing masks, and the resistance to becoming vaccinated. How can a single memorial take all this and more into account?

Initially, something immediate is needed. Recent examples include temporary memorials such as the National Covid Memorial Wall in London, where, by July 2021, people had painted 150,000 hearts to commemorate each of the victims of the pandemic. It prompted such an enthusiastic response that there has been talk of making it permanent.

A striking example in the United States was the installation of more than 600,000 white flags spread across 20 acres of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in September 2021, to commemorate the number of recorded American deaths at the time. Created by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, it was intended to provide a place where people could come together to grieve and focus national attention on the vast scale of personal and communal losses.

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From Sept. 17 through Oct. 3, permanent markers were provided for those who wished to personalize a flag to someone lost to the virus. Those unable to make it to Washington could request a dedicated flag on the work’s website. During the time the flags were displayed, the COVID death toll surpassed that of the 1918 Flu Pandemic (which was about 675,000 Americans), becoming the deadliest pandemic in US history. The 1918-19 flu took a huge national toll but prompted no national and few other memorials, presumably because it coincided with and was overshadowed by World War I.

Failing a new temporary work, sometimes an existing memorial provides a place to gather and mourn. Recently the gilded Plague Column in Vienna, dedicated in 1679 to the Great Vienna Plague that killed more than 75,000 people, became a focal point during the coronavirus pandemic, attracting large numbers of visitors who left candles, tokens, prayers, and pleas for protection at its base. Installed in front of a church, its iconography suggests that this plague was viewed as a punishment for sin and its end a result of divine intervention. Commissioned by Emperor Leo I, it is topped by an image of the Holy Trinity and features saints, angels, and more, as well as the figure of the emperor praying. It’s through use that permanent memorials stay alive.

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Starting to think about a COVID-19 memorial to mark the millionth death, it makes sense to keep in mind that these fatalities will not be the last. A memorial could have elements that might echo a national form that could be installed locally and made specific there, something along the lines of the elements included in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., for communities to commemorate the Black victims lost to racial terrorism.

It might be constructive to consider how we might honor the heroes of the pandemic: the medical professionals who served in the face of daunting conditions, the essential workers who incurred daily risks, the teachers who restructured their practice to include online and hybrid formats, and many more. Could one memorial to COVID-19 honor both its victims and its heroes? What do we want to remember at this particular moment? How can we best commemorate a million deaths and counting?

Harriet F. Senie, a professor emeritus of art history at City College of New York, is author of “Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11.”