Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

400 lights were placed around the Reflecting Pool to honor the nearly 400,000 Americans killed by COVID-19

Douglas Emhoff, U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Dr. Jill Biden and U.S. President-elect Joe Biden look down the National Mall as lamps are lit to honor the nearly 400,000 American victims of the coronavirus pandemic at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool January 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. 400 lights were placed around the Reflecting Pool to honor the nearly 400,000 Americans killed by COVID-19. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Scale of Loss: 400,000 Dead

These losses will haunt us for centuries to come

Rivera Sun

Four hundred lights stretch along the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall. Each represents one thousand people in America who have died of COVID-19. It is only in their absence that we have space to acknowledge the dead--there is not enough space beside the pool for that many people to stand. It is only by symbols that we can understand the enormity of what we’ve lost.

If the living marched on DC in equal numbers, the sea of people would be as large as the DC Women’s March in 2017or twice the size of the crowd in the iconic photos of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech during the March On Washington in 1963.

It is difficult to comprehend the silence around these 400,000 deaths. When 2,977 people died in the 9/11 attacks, the nation mourned and grieved, took off their shoes at airports, invaded two countries, formed new departments of security and surveillance, tossed out half our civil liberties, and posted flags commemorating the lives lost on 9/11 in airports around the nation.

There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of our failure to limit the spread of COVID-19. Many of us cannot even take the simplest action to respect this tragedy--not even wearing a mask to prevent the disease's spread. Until the memorial of lights along the Reflecting Pool, we had no official mourning from the highest office in the nation.

Why is death by pandemic less worthy of our collective grief than death by terrorism?

There is no foreign nation to falsely accuse and illegally invade this time. The culprits are ourselves, the lies of politicians, our gullibility, and the propaganda of media outlets. It is painful to think of all the ways we failed our fellow citizens in this crisis. Can we carve out the social space to regret how some prioritized privileges over the needs of others? Can we discuss why some of our fellow citizens felt their vacations and shopping were more important than others’ lives? Can we deal with the stark fact that the wealthy and politically powerful insisted upon business-as-usual, forced the workers back to work, and refused economic relief that would have kept each family safe and sheltered, fed and warm?

Can we bear to think--even for just one moment--of 400,000 families who weep over the absence of a grandmother, ache as they notice the empty chair of a beloved, or sob because their son or daughter was cut down too early in life?

Can we imagine the pain of families who lost two, three, or more relatives to this pandemic?

Can we acknowledge the ways Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples have had the heart of their communities carved away, leaving silenced wisdom and missing language-speakers?

Can we remember the hundreds of thousands still struggling to recover from the disease, wrestling with relief at surviving it and frustration with the exhaustion that lingers in their bodies for months after being discharged from the hospital?

Can we commend the teachers who stood up against hasty school re-openings and honor them for saving thousands of schoolchildren?

Can we offer a minute of silence for each of the 400,000 victims? That is a pregnant thought, as 400,000 minutes equals nine months. Of ghostly silence.

We choose, as a nation, who we mourn. These choices are not weighted equally. We have used our national mourning for political gain. We have used grief to drive our country into illegal wars. Meanwhile, we ignore the grief of those whose oppression turns the wheels of our economy. We deem the losses felt by marginalized groups as somehow less worthy than the losses felt by the most privileged in our society. We decide by those weighted scales whose lives deserve acknowledging--and whose should be swept into a single statistic that is ignored.

Each life, however, is born with the inalienable right to be seen and heard, honored and treasured, missed and mourned when it is lost. To fail to reckon with the losses our nation has faced from this pandemic is to fail to measure up to our basic humanity. The dead deserve far more than what we’ve offered them and their families. These losses will haunt us for centuries to come. We can only hope that in this haunting, we change the ways in which lives are counted or discounted, and souls are lost . . . or perhaps saved.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

'Political Malpractice': House Democrats' Bill Wouldn't Add Dental to Medicare Until 2028

"I don't want to see it drawn out to as far as the House has proposed," Sen. Bernie Sanders said during a recent press call.

Jake Johnson ·

'How Many More Deaths Must It Take?' Barbados Leader Rips Rich Nations in Fierce UN Speech

"How many more variants of Covid-19 must arrive, how many more, before a worldwide plan for vaccinations will be implemented?"

Jake Johnson ·

To Avert Debt Ceiling Calamity, Democrats Urged to Finally Kill the Filibuster

"The solution is to blow up the filibuster at least for debt limit votes, just as Mitch blew it up to pack the Supreme Court for his big donors."

Jake Johnson ·

Biden Decries 'Outrageous' Treatment of Haitians at Border—But Keeps Deporting Them

"I'm glad to see President Biden speak out about the mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers. But his administration's use of Title 42 to deny them the right to make an asylum claim is a much bigger issue."

Jessica Corbett ·

Global Peace Activists Warn of Dangers of US-Led Anti-China Pacts

"No to military alliances and preparation for catastrophic wars," anti-war campaigners from over a dozen nations write in a letter decrying the new AUKUS agreement. "Yes to peace, disarmament, justice, and the climate."

Brett Wilkins ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.

Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo