WASHINGTON — As the U.S. crossed the threshold of 400,000 deaths from COVID-19, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris spoke at the country’s first national memorial service for coronavirus victims. The service, which was shared via livestream, took place by the illuminated reflecting pool of the Lincoln Memorial.
The service took place on Jan. 19, the eve of Biden and Harris’ inauguration and almost one year after the first U.S. COVID-19 case was confirmed in Seattle. The country has since recorded more than 24 million cases, but has not yet had the opportunity to come together to grieve the collective loss.
“To heal, we must remember … It’s important to do that as a nation,” Biden said. “That’s why we’re here today.”
Biden and Harris centered their short speeches on unification, telling Americans that it was the only way to move past the trauma of the last year after months of isolation and political divide.
“For many months, we have grieved by ourselves. Tonight, we grieve and begin healing together,” Harris said. “Though we may be physically separated, we, the American people, are united in spirit.”
Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the first Black American cardinal and the archbishop of Washington, led the nation in a prayer to start off the ceremony. He acknowledged the widespread sorrow that Americans have felt over the last year from the loss of relatives, friends, and colleagues to the virus, which he identified as a common threat that does not discriminate.
“Our sorrow unites us to one another as a single people with passionate hearts,” Gregory said during the prayer.
The service featured Lorie Marie Key, a registered nurse from Michigan who is known for singing on the floor of her hospital’s COVID-19 unit, in a performance of “Amazing Grace.”
“When I work, I sing. It gives me strength during difficult times and I believe it helps us heal,” Key said.
After a moment of silence and the ringing of church bells in honor of the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, gospel singer Yolanda Adams offered a moving rendition of “Hallelujah.”
“Let us shine the lights in the darkness along the sacred pool of reflection to remember all that we’ve lost,” Biden said at the end of the service.
Unlike the aftermath of many other types of mass traumas, the months of isolation required to combat the virus restricted the ability of communities to collectively grieve over the hundreds of thousands of lives lost. This ceremony is the nation’s first official act of remembrance after a tumultuous period of cumulative distress.
“In times of great societal distress, we look to our leaders for consolation,” said Dr. Jan Holton, an expert on trauma and associate professor of pastoral care at Duke Divinity School.
Holton also noted that the presence of key leaders at the memorial, like Gregory, may ease the collective sense of grief many people are experiencing.
“It’s not as if 400,000 people were dying and that grief were not enough … There’s profound grief over what happened in Washington,” Holton said.
President Trump has yet to publicly comment on the nation’s morbid milestone of 400,000 COVID-19 deaths. Since the outbreak began, Trump has touted the success of his administration’s Warp Speed campaign and downplayed any criticisms associated with the country’s singular death toll or states’ pleas for more federal help.
The incoming Biden-Harris administration has already laid out a $1.9 trillion roadmap for public health and economic recovery, deemed the American Rescue Plan. The plan requests about $415 billion in emergency spending for COVID-related needs like testing, PPE and vaccine production, and vaccination deployment.
While the circumstances of his inauguration have changed greatly due to the Capitol riot, Biden’s speech at the memorial today stayed in-line with his previous messaging about how his administration would fight the virus.
“This is going to be the greatest operational challenge we've ever faced as a nation. But we're going to get it done," Biden said at a speech on Dec. 29, 2020.