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As U.S. COVID deaths near 1 million, advocates press for a memorial day

White flags are seen in September 2021 near the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., as part of a project to memorialize the lives lost to COVID-19 in the United States. Advocates are seeking an enduring memorial.
Daniel Slim
/
AFP via Getty Images
White flags are seen in September 2021 near the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., as part of a project to memorialize the lives lost to COVID-19 in the United States. Advocates are seeking an enduring memorial.

Janeth Nuñez del Prado had the date marked on her calendar. Last May, her dad Hugo, who lived in Bolivia, was supposed to visit her family in New Mexico.

"And we would look at the date all the time, and be so excited," Nuñez del Prado said.

Tragically, her dad came down with COVID-19 before he could make the trip.

"He died just two weeks before he was supposed to come and get the vaccine and meet his grandkids for the first time," she said, wiping away tears. "You know, we always thought we would have more time."

In many ways, life in the U.S. is returning to something of a pre-COVID normal. Masks are coming off, parties are being scheduled. But for millions of Americans who lost a loved one to the disease, life will never be the same. Now there's an effort led by a group called Marked By COVID to establish an enduring memorial to a pandemic that has killed some 960,000 people in the U.S. — with the number still rising.

Janeth Nuñez del Prado (left) with her father Hugo Nuñez del Prado and sister Cynthia Saunders in 2014. Hugo died from COVID in May 2021.
/ Janeth Nuñez del Prado
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Janeth Nuñez del Prado
Janeth Nuñez del Prado (left) with her father Hugo Nuñez del Prado and sister Cynthia Saunders in 2014. Hugo died from COVID in May 2021.

Nuñez del Prado is working with Marked By COVID. Like so many people, she didn't get a chance to say goodbye to her dad. He spent his final days on a ventilator, alone in the hospital. There was no funeral.

"It really interrupts the grieving process," she said. "We have these rituals for a reason, because they help us heal. And in the absence of that, it's just really, really hard."

Nuñez del Prado, who is a social worker and trauma therapist, is now channeling her grief into lobbying for a national COVID memorial day on the first Monday of March each year, as well as trying to build physical memorials in cities all over the country.

"I know that a key to healing from trauma is to hold space, to feel what you need to feel," she said, "and to do this in community."

On Monday night, Marked By COVID led a virtual service attended by hundreds of people who had lost someone to the disease. They lit candles and shared the names of their loved ones in the chat, writing notes about why they were so special, and about the emptiness left behind. More than 500 people submitted photos of loved ones who had died.

Kristin Urquiza, the group's co-founder, lost her dad to the virus in 2020. She argued that this painful time needs to be remembered, with a day on the calendar.

"We will be able to teach our children, our grandchildren and future generations about this moment in time, about our pain, about what happens in a public health crisis, about what is lost and who is lost," she said.

After the 1918 flu pandemic, there was no large-scale effort to memorialize the substantial losses. It was tied up in World War I and President Woodrow Wilson tried to avoid projecting weakness by even acknowledging the ravages of the pandemic.

Activists say this time must be different, that these losses — which cut across party lines and racial and economic barriers — shouldn't be forgotten.

Progress has been slow, but the concept behind the physical memorials would be to create a design that would be scalable, from a small town square to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. — a place for people to leave flowers or reflect on their loss. But advocates want to add on an interactive, augmented reality element. People would be able to submit photos of their loved ones, then hold up their phones to the memorial and see their pictures projected toward the sky among those of other COVID victims.

In Congress, the current focus is on a pair of resolutions showing support for a COVID memorial day. Arizona Democratic Rep. Greg Stanton is the lead sponsor of the House resolution.

"We haven't faced death at this magnitude in our country in a long period of time, [and the] trauma that's associated with that," he said.

So far Stanton's resolution has 67 co-sponsors, all Democrats, but he is hoping to attract Republican colleagues too. The resolution hasn't gotten a hearing yet, but he is pushing hard, because he says it is important that the pain of the pandemic is not swept under the rug in the pursuit of normalcy.

"Those that are suffering from long-term COVID, those that have lost a loved one, we see you, we hear you," he said in an interview with NPR. "We will not forget you. We understand that ... the loss of your family member is first and foremost a loss to you. But it is also part of a larger national tragedy."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president supports memorializing lives lost to COVID, but right now the focus remains on fighting the pandemic and securing funding from Congress to be prepared for whatever comes next.

"Certainly memorializing lives lost is something that we're open to," she said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.