When artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg laid out her memorial to Americans killed by COVID-19, the space she was given to install it was in a neglected corner of Washington DC, close to its under-utilized armory and the all-but-abandoned Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. The plan was simple: 60 foot grids of white flags, spaced 10 inches apart, one for each life lost.
On opening day, October 23, 2020, bright autumn sunshine fell across 219,000 flags. But Firstenberg had left space for 240,000. It was not enough. When the exhibition was taken down in November, the death count had gone to 257,000.
This October, it has passed 700,000 and there are grids of white flags commemorating every one of them on the National Mall, between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument, the choicest spot in town.
Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg called her 2020 installation In America: How Could This Happen…? The new, larger, much more prominently displayed memorial is entitled In America: Remember.
The accusatory title was appropriate for the last weeks of the Trump era, but for the 2021 edition, for the Biden era, here are three meanings those white flags bring to the command: remember.
One, remember us, remember how many, how much we Americans have lost to the pandemic.
Two, remember what happened and why; what was well done in managing the pandemic and what was not, remember and learn something.
And three, remember, COVID-19 is still very much with us, and care must still be taken to save your life and everyone else’s. Get vaccinated, mask up and inside, keep your social distance.
Gregg Gonsalves is The Nation’s public health correspondent and codirector of the Global Health Justice Partnership and an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health. A cofounder of the Treatment Action Group, he was the winner of a 2018 MacArthur fellowship.