A Haunting Visual Honors Our Covid Dead
Washington – The ravaging of America by Covid-19 is so immense that most of us have trouble fathoming the depth of our national trauma. Corona has so engulfed our lives that we have become numb to our upward spiraling death toll.
To make the enormity of our loss more tangible, more visible, more immediate, more palpable, and to help us grasp the ghostly emptiness inflicted on millions of Americans, an ingenious artist has created a seemingly infinite field of foot-high white flags on the National Mall, one for each of our nearly 700-thousand fatalities. It is a tapestry of death, whipping in the wind, in the shadow of the Washington monument.
Its creator — Suzanne Firstenberg, a 62-year-old artist from South Dakota with luminous blue eyes and a welcoming gaze, says she was seeking a medium that would honor and value each individual life lost and simultaneously convey the vastness of the death toll.
Her art speaks powerfully. The sheer sweep and yawning expanse of Firstenberg’s field of flags is stunning, awesome, and painful to behold. Her valley of death stretches toward the horizon in all directions. And the poignant, hand-written notes on many flags are a piercing reminder that this is no mere mechanical accounting but an embodiment of the personal tragedies and the holes left in the hearts and homes of Americans from Scranton and Savannah to Sioux Falls and Sacramento.
More Flags Here than in Arlington National Cemetery
With the death toll still climbing, Firstenberg’s memorial already contains more flags than the legendary headstones to the American war dead on the hallowed ground at Arlington National Cemetery and more flags than the crosses at the enormous graveyard in Normandy that honors the young heroes who stormed French beaches on D-day to liberate Europe from the Nazis.
Yet with its mournful message, Firstenberg’s field inspires empathy. People treat each other gently. They talk with hushed respect. They stroll quietly, thoughtfully along the 2 ½ miles of pathways. Volunteers offer fresh flags and women pen personal notes of devotion to lost loved ones. Young men scribble remembrances to their buddies. Fathers kneel by little flags with children. Seniors stare at the immutable truth. Three young people gather on a bench, arms draped around each other’s shoulders, seeking comfort in their common grief
The immensity of this carpet of casualties is overpowering. America has now suffered more corona deaths than all of our horrendous casualties in World War II, more than the gruesome toll to the Union and the Confederacy in the Civil War, more than the pandemic of 1919, a dozen times more than in Vietnam, 200 times more than on 9/11.
The Death Toll Didn’t Have to be This Immense
What sears the soul is that it didn’t have to happen this way. The scale of our Covid torment could have been mitigated. We Americans inflicted a massive disaster on ourselves.
For in one tiny plot, a marker reminds us that New Zealand has lost only 27 lives to Covid, out of five million people. A miniature fluttering of flags. Small country, you say, tempting to dismiss. But another marker informs, us that if We, the United States of America, had adopted the strict measures imposed in New Zealand– an immediate countrywide lockdown, tight border controls, strict isolation of infected cases, contact tracing, and mass masking – our likely death toll would have been just 1,809.
Instead, our leaders pooh-poohed Covid, played politics and procrastinated – and we the people have paid a terrible price. Even now, close to 18 months after our first case of Covid, the death toll rolls on. We are hit every day and a half by a new Covid eq1uivalent of 9/11. In just three days, I saw 6,000 new covid deaths recorded, equal to two 9/11s, and yet 30 or 40 million Americans are still in denial of Covid’s deadly sting, so vividly captured and so movingly honored by this haunting remembrance to the irreplaceable mass of Americans taken form us by Covid-19.