Brigid: I'm Brigid Bergin in for Tanzina Vega. You're listening to The Takeaway. This past weekend, 20,000 folding chairs, each representing 10 people, filled the Ellipse lawn in Washington DC just South of the White House. The installation was part of a National Day of Remembrance organized by the group COVID Survivors for Change to honor more than 200,000 lives lost to the pandemic so far.
Dionne: Today, we come together because we're all in pain because we have lost so much, friends, family, jobs, and our livelihoods, our sense of security, and our way of life. It's been over eight months of this devastating pandemic and we have not yet had this moment.
Brigid: That was singer and longtime activist Dionne Warwick speaking at Sunday's Remembrance. The grassroots-organized event is just one of the many ways people are mourning publicly as the coronavirus pandemic continues. In recent months, people have turned to everything from small memorials to protests to social media to express their collective grief. Here to discuss that and more is Micki McElya, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut and author of The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery. Micki, welcome back to the show.
Micki: Hi, there. Thanks so much for having me back.
Brigid: Micki, the last time you were on the show, it was when the death toll had reached 100,000 people. Now we're at more than double that, with more than 200,000 deaths. How is the public response to our collective loss shifted since the spring?
Micki: I think we've seen two things, both the incredible outpouring of different kinds of public mourning and community activism that have really filled the spaces left vacant by our federal government, by state authorities and a more official national public mourning. I think we've seen a really glorious response from people who refuse to be silent in their mourning and refuse to see their loved ones and their friends go uncollectively mourned. By the same token, we've reached this grim number and still see so many unwilling to acknowledge the profound loss to this country and the profound losses globally due to this illness.
Brigid: Micki, did we see the same scope of tributes we saw at the 100,000 milestone?
Micki: No. That's something that I think is really important to note and really incredible. That's, in this time, we've seen people build incredible coalitions and complicated protests. We've seen the events this weekend and the really stunning visual of those 20,000 chairs, empty chairs on the Ellipse. That takes an enormous amount of collective effort and organizing. In the months since June, we've seen that. We've seen that, I think, in large part because of the ongoing uprisings following the murder of George Floyd. I think we're seeing just a collective, a groundswell of activism and refusal to see some lives not valued and some losses not valued.
Brigid: There has just been this flood of numbers just in terms of the scope of the pandemic. I'm wondering, how does the media coverage we consume shape how we perceive the toll of this virus?
Micki: I think it has a profound impact. We talk a lot and I think many of us are incredibly concerned about the kind of information silos that Americans exist in at this point and how we tend to be in an echo chambers of people of like mind and similar politics. One of the things that happens because of that is this kind of organizing also stays within certain silos. I would venture that you could go on the streets and ask people about the events of this last weekend, many probably wouldn't know what had happened. I think we're seeing different kinds of news reaching different people and that we are losing that collective media consciousness and dialogue about these grassroots efforts.
Brigid: I think, to your point, President Trump and other members of his administration have routinely downplayed the magnitude of this virus and the loss that's resulted from it even as the President was in and out of the hospital over the weekend. I'm wondering, to what extent do you feel that has impacted our perceptions of it and therefore how we collectively mourn?
Micki: Yes, I think this is a real struggle and we are dealing with an administration that has refused to respond initially or correct the problems and in the national response. That has resulted in many, many unnecessary deaths and unnecessary infections. The impact of downplaying the consequences and to public health and to American lives is devastating, while simultaneously flaunting the disproportionate healthcare and access that some Americans have in this country while others do not.
Brigid: In the absence of a government-led day of mourning, we have seen these grassroots efforts fill the gap. What are some of the other ways we're seeing people mourn collectively right now?
Micki: We're seeing everything from very localized community efforts, church-based efforts, organizations that are looking to honor members of their community in photographs, through the reading of names and both pulling people together either on social media or in socially distanced ways and public spaces. We're also seeing these large collective efforts like the one on Sunday that really represents a wide swath of different political positions and different coalitions of groups.
I think we should also look at the March for the Dead organization, which held an event a couple of weeks ago in New York City and the kind of activist mourning and public mourning that both calls the state, calls people to account for the failures but also looks to build something new. This really important coalition of different organizations represent this organizing work and this real groundswell and I think, an incredibly inspiring and hopeful picture of responses to these losses and to the need for a national large collective processing and mourning and recognizing.
Brigid: Micki McElya is a professor of history at the University of Connecticut and author of The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery. Micki, thanks for joining us.
Micki: Thank you.
Brigid: Has your community been memorializing COVID deaths in recent months? How are you honoring lives lost? Give us a call at 877-869-8253. That's (877) 869-8253.
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