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The important symbolism of Joe Biden’s memorial to Covid-19’s victims

On the eve of his inauguration, Biden grieves for the lives lost to Covid-19: “To heal, we must remember.”

Covid-19 memorial at the Lincoln Memorial and nationwide

America’s Covid-19 death toll has surpassed 400,000. Tonight, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris honor those who have died with a memorial service from the Lincoln Memorial.

Posted by Vox on Tuesday, January 19, 2021
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

The day before his inauguration as the 46th president of the United States, Joe Biden sought to begin a collective and public grieving of the more than 400,000 American lives lost in the Covid-19 pandemic.

“To heal, we must remember. It’s hard. But that’s how we heal,” Biden said, speaking from the base of the Lincoln Memorial during the Covid-19 memorial being held as part of his inauguration activities. “It is important we do that as a nation. That’s why we are here today.”

Pillars of light lined the Reflecting Pool. Lori Marie Key, a Michigan nurse who works in a Covid-19 unit, sang “Amazing Grace” to open the proceedings. Gospel singer Yolanda Adams followed Biden with her rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and the entire ceremony was over in less than 10 minutes.

But the symbolism was still powerful. The memorial occurred on the same day that the number of confirmed Covid-19 deaths in the US surpassed 400,000. And it came the day before Biden becomes president, replacing Donald Trump, who has until now led the nation through the coronavirus pandemic and, in the estimation of most public health experts, fallen woefully short in his response.

Trump downplayed the coronavirus threat throughout the past year. He promised the American people a year ago that it would be quickly under control. He said that businesses could reopen by Easter. He defied public health guidance to hold indoor, mostly maskless campaign rallies starting in July. The political polarization of Covid-19, driven primarily by the misinformation propagated by the president, has hampered the ability of public health authorities to convince the public to wear masks, socially distance, and make other sacrifices as the best means of beating back the virus.

Biden, from the start of his presidential campaign, sought to in his words reclaim the soul of America from its contamination by Trump. He initially pegged that corruption to the white nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, where Trump appeared unable to condemn the racist displays seen there.

But the pandemic made the stakes of that battle much more visceral.

Trump’s response to the coronavirus was defined by xenophobia, baseless hype, and a decided lack of empathy. Biden has promised to change the government policies that he believes have let down the American people during this crisis. But with the country seeing more than 200,000 new cases and 3,000 new deaths every day on average, it will take time to turn the tide of the pandemic.

More than anything, Biden’s advisers told me before the election, he needed to restore a sense of leadership and fill the void Biden thought Trump had left.

Those pillars of light surrounding Biden were a reminder: The cost of the last year’s failure has been hundreds of thousands of lives cut short. Thousands more people will die in the coming days.

Perhaps, with new leadership, there can be some hope that the worst is finally behind us. But that doesn’t change what has already happened. That was the message Biden sought to send, hours before taking the oath of office.

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