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Part of Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg's “IN AMERICA How Could This Happen…” installation in fall 2020. Photo: Bruce Guthrie, courtesy George Washington University.

667,000 and Counting: In America, Fucking Remember

Abby Zimet

At 3 a.m. Tuesday, in what its creator likens to a much-needed "collective sigh," volunteers began planting the first of 662,000 white flags on D.C.'s National Mall in mournful tribute to America's staggering, unholy, largely preventable COVID death toll, which just passed the record mass casualties of the Civil War and is now surging to over 1,800 deaths and 170,000 new cases every day. The numbers confound: Over 42 million Americans, or one in seven, have had COVID, one in every 500 have died, and experts agree those confirmed numbers drastically under-report the dire reality. Today's pandemic of the stubbornly, stupidly unvaccinated, fueled by Delta and maskless kids going back to school, is concentrated in southern GOP-run states widely seeing severe staff and bed shortages, ICU units at or over capacity, and hospitals "at the brink of collapse in many communities." In Kentucky, where 70% of hospitals have reported critical shortages, doctors lament that, thanks to anti-science idiocy, "Most of the education happening now is based on tragedy, personal tragedy.” And the stories of it keep coming.

Still, the right-wing insanity goes on. In over half the states, GOP state officials have used the slaughter as an excuse for a power grab that unconscionably rolls back the ability of public health officials to manage the pandemic or any other catastrophes down the road even as cases and deaths still soar. "They didn’t just close down the fire department," says one appalled critic. "They sent the trucks home while the buildings were still on fire." Meanwhile, cops in New Jersey are dying thanks to anti-vaxx unions; judges in New York have issued temporary restraining orders against vaccine mandates for city and health care workers; Ron DeathSantis of Florida, with 14,000 new cases a day from his anti-mask-or-vaccine-mandate stance, has threatened to fine businesses "millions and millions of dollars" if they ask for proof of vaccination; the A.G. in  Texas - almost 25,000 new cases a day - is busy documenting and harrassing over 120 school districts "not in compliance" with a ban on school mask mandates, aka trying to keep kids alive; and South Carolina's Henry McMaster has hysterically vowed to fight “to the gates of hell" to protect "liberty and livelihood," also, please, lethal idiocy.

Little wonder the U.S. has the lowest vaccination rate of western democracies - though thank God for atheists, who are mostly vaccinated. The mulish ignorance of anti-vaxxers has rendered the current suffering, writes one physician, "Different. Optional. A choice. A fact those in health care - all exhausted, all having given too much already - are having a hard time ignoring." Citing an increasingly widespread compassion fatigue, Dr. Chavi Karkowsky describes her colleagues' harrowing experiences the past 18 months - trudging past temporary morgues in hospital parking lots and ICUs in hallways and auditoriums, signing too many death certificates, refraining for months from hugging kids partners for fear of their safety: "We did that, every day, because we were trained to care for humans who needed us. But I also kept working because I needed to believe that, if I was ever in danger, other humans would come help me." Today, physicians have grown cynical witnessing the unfathomable "time, energy, lives" wasted. A year ago, they worried about dwindling N95-mask supplies and ventilator inventory, she says: "Now, we are burning through our most irreplaceable health-care resource: hope."

On Friday, the largest public art installation on the National Mall since 1987's AIDS quilt - which likewise served as bitter testimony to both loss and criminal negligence - will open to bring those costs home. In America: Remember, the work of artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg along with a D.C. anthropologist, a Colorado software engineer and an army of volunteers, creates a sea of 662,000 white flags, each symbolizing one U.S. COVID death - though they've now risen to over 667,000. With almost four miles of walking paths, the memorial seeks to connect those who've grieved in isolation and to visualize "the vastness of (the) loss." From Sept. 17 to Oct. 3, people can visit, personalize flags for a lost loved one, or remotely dedicate a flag. By Thursday, workers had installed 450,000 flags, with "more daily, as losses mount." "Every one of those represent an empty place at the table, a missing voice," says one. "We must do better." Many furiously agree. Cue Wendy Molyneux' sacred, profane, what-the-fuck-is-your-problem piece in McSweeney's titled, "Oh My Fucking God, Get the Fucking Vaccine Already, You Fucking Fucks." Shrieking to a witless populace that everything has side effects and so what if you get a sore arm for a day so a kid doesn't wind up on a ventilator, she speaks for us all: "Fuck you. Get vaccinated. Fuck."

Update: Since publishing this, the number of deaths has soared almost 10,000 to 673,000. Fucking surreal, and yes, preventable.


Abby Zimet

Abby Zimet

Abby has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. 

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