Ever since last month’s 20th anniversary of that awful day, I can’t stop thinking: How will we honor the people who have died from COVID-19 in years to come? In 10 or 20 years, what will our ceremonies, commemorations, monuments, and memorials look like?
So far, more than 700,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 (including more than 30,000 in Pennsylvania), and almost five million worldwide. Each left behind an estimated nine family members, not to mention countless friends and other loved ones. More than 1.5 million children have lost at least one parent or other caregiver.
The people who died on 9/11 aren’t just a number — 2,977 killed in New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa. Years later, we still tell their stories: They were an ambitious young man about to propose to his girlfriend, a caterer who was working her last day at the World Trade Center, and an NYC police officer who was filing his retirement papers when he heard about the attacks and ran to help. And the young woman from Wyndmoor I used to ride with on the bus to middle school, who once brought a stranger to the hospital after an accident, then stayed to hold her hand. Every single person lost on that day was loved and extraordinary in their own way.
One way we honor the dead is by learning from what happened, so their loss can save someone else in the future. We’ve tried to do this after 9/11 — think of how different air travel is today, compared with 20 years ago. But when it comes to COVID-19, we are falling short: Too many Americans are vilifying public health experts and limiting states’ powers to protect citizens against infectious diseases. The next pandemic is coming, and we are woefully unprepared.
“We’re not giving ourselves space to remember these people. We’re not telling their stories or learning from our mistakes.”
Even if we refuse to learn from the mistakes that led to the death of hundreds of thousands of Americans, we can at least try to remember them, and take care of those left behind. Recently, I have been watching the HBO series The Leftovers, in which 2% of the world’s population — roughly 140 million people — suddenly disappear. The show, which aired from 2014-2017, begins three years after the “departure,” and everything has changed. A new government agency pays benefits to family members of the departed, people around the world make pilgrimages to a town that didn’t lose any residents, and a cult designed to remind the world what happened never has a shortage of new members. The point is: They remember. People didn’t just dust themselves off and get back to work. They don’t try to pretend that the world isn’t in mourning.
Thankfully, we haven’t lost 140 million people to COVID-19 — and hopefully, we won’t get anywhere near that number — but we recently reached a grim milestone: one in 500 Americans have died of the pandemic. The stats are more sobering for BIPOC, and particularly people 85 and older, nearly 3% of whom have died of COVID-19. We’ve lost nearly 600 children aged 18 and under; only eight children died on 9/11. At least 42 people who survived 9/11 have since died of COVID-19. Each of those people was also loved and extraordinary in their own way.
But we’re not giving ourselves space to remember these people. We’re not telling their stories or learning from our mistakes. Instead, we’re expecting everyone to dust themselves off and keep working, going to bars, and filling stadiums as before, pretending that people aren’t still dying all around us.
Alison McCook is a writer based in Wyncote. @alisonmccook