Memorial along National Mall offers stark reminder of virus’s toll

People sit among white flags near the Washington Monument in Washington on Sept 17, 2021, that are part of artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg's temporary art installation, "In America: Remember," in remembrance of Americans who have died of COVID-19. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)
Peering at a sea of white flags blanketing the National Mall, Dr Laura Valleni recalled the scores of pregnant women who had contracted the coronavirus at her hospital in South Carolina. Babies have been born prematurely, mothers have died and a surge of children has overwhelmed the paediatric unit for the past two months, she said.

“I’ve been grappling with when it became OK for even one person to die of preventable illness,” said Valleni, a neonatal physician at Prisma Health Children’s Hospital-Midlands in Columbia. “There’s such tremendous grief.”

She was one of dozens who flocked to the opening Friday morning of “In America: Remember,” an art installation of hundreds of thousands of flags planted along the mall that honour the more than 670,000 people in the United States who have died from the coronavirus.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser were in attendance as visitors walked among the rows of white flags covering 20 acres of federal park land bordering the White House, the Washington Monument, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the World War II Memorial.

Angelica Rivera, 33, a call centre agent for a health care facility in New Jersey, dedicated a flag to a colleague, Karla Pope, a nurse who died of the virus in January. “I love you! Thank you for everything you did for all of us. My forever work mom,” she wrote.

“We were one of the first health care centres to get vaccines in New Jersey and she was administering the shots, and then a little while later then she got sick,” Rivera said. “She got COVID and passed away. Her husband also passed away, and her kids were left without a mom and a dad.”

Other names and messages on flags paid tribute to loved ones: Marshall Ciccone, a dedicated husband; Bruce Allen Hutcheson, a health care hero; and Betty Fox, whose daughter aches for her.

The artist behind the installation, Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, planted 267,000 flags in Washington last fall to recognize what was then the death toll of the coronavirus in the country.

Almost a year later, that figure has more than doubled. In the past week alone, more than 13,000 Americans have died — more than four times the number of people who died during 9/11.

Watching as a rainstorm swept over her installation minutes before the opening ceremony, Firstenberg said the flags offered a stark reminder of the number of people lost to the virus. “If we don’t manifest it physically, people will not understand,” she said.

“It breaks my heart,” she added. “Sometimes I just have to stop. It’s — it gets so hard.”

Visitors to the memorial expressed a similar weariness, drawn from their own experiences with the pandemic. Linda Whittaker, a psychotherapist who has treated many patients grieving the loss of coronavirus victims, said she had had to numb herself to the sorrow as a protective measure.

“It’s crushing,” Whittaker said, her voice wavering. “There are a number of colleagues in my field that are feeling the same thing. That there’s such an overwhelming sadness and grief and sense of helplessness and despair.”

But, she added, the memorial has given her a space to mourn.

Lonnie G Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who delivered remarks at the opening ceremony, compared the installation to the AIDS Memorial Quilt, another collaborative art piece displayed on the National Mall multiple times during the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Valleni, the neonatal physician, recalled contributing a square to the quilt when it was displayed on the mall in the ’90s.

“It took our country a long time to learn about what was going on, and then to really embrace and care for people with HIV and AIDS,” she said. “This is very much resonating with me from that time.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.