We must build permanent memorials to those we lost to COVID-19

Build one in Washington, D.C., and build them around the country

The Washington Monument as lights surround the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool during a COVID-19 memorial to lives lost on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. Credit: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Memorials are how America tells its stories in public. That’s why after we defeat this virus, we must build permanent memorials to honor the lives we lost. We must build memorials in Washington, D.C., and in cities and towns across the country. We must never forget.

Monuments to victims of viruses aren’t very common. There are a few, including a memorial to those who died in the 1918 influenza pandemic at a cemetery in Barre, Vermont, that was installed in 2018, and memorials to those who died of AIDS in cities like New York and San Francisco. The AIDS Memorial Quilt was first displayed on the National Mall in 1987 and has grown to 48,000 panels.

Clockwise from top left: The 1918 Spanish Flu Memorial in Barre, Vermont (Credit: u/TrendWarrior101/Reddit); the New New York City AIDS Memorial Park sculpture at St. Vincent's Triangle in Greenwich Village (Credit: Fulbert/Wikimedia Commons); the National AIDS Memorial Grove at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco (Credit: Miss_Millions/Wikimedia Commons); and the AIDS Quilt on display on the National Mall (Credit: National Institutes of Health).

One reason these kinds of monuments are uncommon is because invisible viruses make for less compelling enemies than, say, Nazis, and pandemics lack the same kind of sweeping storylines of Washington, Lincoln, and World War II. But we must change that. We must remember those we lost and we must remember the lessons of this pandemic so it never happens again.

The scale of death during the COVID-19 pandemic — 512,979 victims as of March 1, and counting — is unlike anything we’ve experienced in our lifetime. In just about a year, this virus has killed more Americans than every war except our four-year Civil War. If we were to write the names of everyone in the U.S. killed by this virus, it would require a wall nearly nine times longer than the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, according to National Geographic. “Monumental” is one of the few words that even begins to adequately describe the depths of our loss.

Monuments will help us process our pain. Our country and our communities are weaker without people like my father Dan Soren Schwarz, who died last month at the age of 58, and the more than half a million others who were also killed by this virus. We must remember them.

But we cannot wait for the pandemic to end before we act. Ongoing memorials are important for us to process loss in real time, and they also help us stay committed to fighting this virus until it’s defeated. We must honor the lives of those we lost by continuing to wear masks, washing our hands, social distancing, getting vaccinated, and supporting efforts to fight future infectious threats, like increasing our vaccine research and production capabilities, and beefing up our surveillance of emerging viruses. May future generations be more prepared for the next pandemic.

Already, cities across the country have lit up their landmarks in memory of the dead, often in amber light. Last September, 20,000 flags were placed on the National Mall. President Joe Biden has held memorials, including at the National Mall reflecting pool with 400 lights the night before he took office, and at the White House to mark half a million deaths with 500 candles on February 22.

President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and second gentleman Douglas Emhoff hold a moment of silence and candle lighting during a ceremony to honor lives lost to COVID-19 on the South Portico of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. Credit: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Some elected officials are even pushing for a holiday. More than 60 mayors around the U.S. have sponsored a resolution to make March 1 COVID Memorial Day, and Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Arizona) is pushing for the holiday in Congress. More than 75 events are being held to mark the day this year.

After the pandemic ends, we can begin serious work towards building permanent memorials, though there are already efforts underway. Last year, Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-New York) introduced the COVID-19 National Memorial Act, which would build a national memorial in the Bronx.

Marked by COVID, a nonprofit that works to tell stories about COVID loss and coordinate pandemic responses, advocates for both a memorial on the National Mall and a national holiday.

“We need a response that is commensurate to the scale,” said co-founder Kristin Urquiza, who lost her father Mark to the virus in June 2020. “We need to be thinking about models that are what we do for World War II to memorialize and commemorate.”

There are 24 steps to build a new monument on the National Mall, according to the National Parks Service. Requirements include an act of Congress, the president’s signature, and approval from the Interior Department and the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission. In 2003, Congress said the Mall was “a substantially completed work of civic art,” but there have still been efforts to build there, including a proposed National Global War on Terrorism Memorial.

An imagined COVID-19 memorial by creative architecture studio Rael San Fratello that uses an organic-shaped copper wall to invite touch. Credit: Rael San Fratello for The Atlantic

As for what memorials might look like, there will likely be plenty of designs (there were 5,201 submissions for the 9/11 memorial). Several artists imagined what a possible future COVID-19 memorial could look like for The Atlantic, including physical, virtual, and “talisman” memorials. On the night of the National Mall memorial before Biden took office, MSNBC anchor Brian Williams said the light installation should be made permanent.

Whatever these monuments look like, let them be built as places to mourn, heal, and remember.