On July 3, the President of the United States issued an executive order creating a task force charged with developing a National Garden of American Heroes. Historians pushed back on the proposal. James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, called it a “pretty naked attempt to seize on a cultural conflict to distract from other issues.”
Today I’d like to proposal an alternate commemorative project. As of August 6, IHME projects 295,000 COVID-related deaths in the U.S. by December. What if instead of fighting a culture war over the past, we created a memorial for the crisis of our own times?
Across the country, large-scale remembrance efforts are already underway. In May, the New York Times dedicated its entire front page to some of the 100,000 people who have died of the disease. The City of Chicago has a virtual memorial wall as part of its COVID dashboard. These are powerful representations of the deep and widespread sense of loss afflicting our country. America will need an even more substantial vision of these projects as we reckon with grief and suffering in the years to come.
What I’m proposing is a National Memorial for COVID-19 Heroes, Victims, and Survivors. It would encompass both a national memorial and a network of local sites to memorialize our loved ones. It would include substantive financial compensation for essential workers and survivors. It would allow future generations to understand what happened in America in 2020 and what lessons to learn from our mistakes.
Granted, few words describe the American response to the pandemic as accurately as “fractious.” In a certain sense, the lack of leadership from the federal government makes a national memorial ironic, almost inappropriate. Yet a memorial need not embody past failings, and could potentially even serve the purpose of restorative justice. At its core, this project would be about coming to terms with our grief and finding a way to move forward together.
Spaces of mourning and remembrance
A COVID-19 memorial would firstly need to memorialize the people who lost their lives to the virus. A physical space can provide a comforting environment to mourn and remember. This could be particularly meaningful to families who were not able to say goodbye to loved ones in person.
While valuable interim measures, digital memorials cannot serve as spaces of mourning and monumental edifices seem inappropriate for the occasion—better, perhaps, to think in terms of a memorial garden, a place of peace and reflection.
Nor could building a single memorial in a major city meet the needs of mourners across the country. Similar to war memorials, we could still create a national site, but it should be merely one node in a network of local spaces where families can gather to mourn and remember.
A living memorial for the living
This project should honor the living as well as the dead. Every one of us has made sacrifices in the last six months, but none of us equally. Many have been lucky to be able to work from home while others have faced daily exposure to the virus in hospitals, grocery stories, and other critical services.
We owe a debt of gratitude to our essential workers, but words are not enough. For months, they have been called heroes even while being denied fair compensation and adequate protection. Imagine, instead, a “GI Bill for essential workers,” designed to give them—or their children—access to opportunities too often tied to socioeconomic status. The cost would be considerable but earned several times over. And it would be a just and effective way of allocating financial stimulus directly to those most in need and deserving of it.
We also can’t forget the survivors, many of whom are still living with the impact of COVID-19 on their lives. We owe it to them to provide the medical services they need because we as a nation failed to protect them the first time around.
Remembrance and education
Like the 9/11 Memorial or the war memorials on the National Mall, this project would have an education role complementing remembrance. We cannot afford to forget the lessons of this pandemic—neither the public health ones nor what this crisis has revealed about the frayed social fabric of our nation.
It may sound premature to suggest such a memorial now when our priorities should be public health and economic revitalization, or when the pandemic hasn’t even finished running its course. But I believe such a project would highlight the historic significance of the moment we’re living through, affirming the necessity of short-term collective responsibility. More importantly, it would be a signal that this crisis, our heroes, and those we’ve lost will not be forgotten.