March, for many of us, marks the one-year anniversary of our lives changing dramatically by the COVID-19 virus and entering into quarantine. While it’s still unclear if and when the pandemic will end, our leaders must not only curb the virus but be accurate and deliberate in their memorializing of it.
When thinking of historical moments in the United States that have been carefully memorialized, the 9/11 attacks come instantly to mind. That day in our history has been organically and deliberately etched into all of our memories through countless memorial services (even during the pandemic), the creation of a memorial and museum, changings laws and regulations, and in advertisements.
Though nearly 3,000 lives were lost that day, and undoubtedly deserve to be memorialized in thoughtful ways, it often seems the narrative around 9/11 is exploited for patriotic gain. The ongoing effort to remember it feels inextricably linked to the fact that the enemy was foreign and an attempt to garner feelings of “Americanness”—especially considering the over 450,000 people killed in the resulting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Sacred sites, days of reckoning, and memorializing in media was not the same for the over 1,800 people who died as a result of Hurricane Katrina or the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives at the peak of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ‘90s. And let’s not get started on attempts to dilute the history of indigenous genocide, and that only in 2018 was the first memorial built by a non-profit, Equal Justice Initiative, to honor over 3,000 victims of racist lynchings.
Now one year since we started quarantining, COVID-related deaths have surpassed 9/11 deaths by more than 100 times, with the current overall death toll exceeding 500,000 in the United States.
Each of these crises shouldn’t be simplistically compared by their body counts, nor is one event more painful than another. Every life lost is a tragedy. However, we’ve arrived at a moment where real American patriotism—the kind that is administered in our memorializing of the 9/11 attacks—will be put to the test as we mark one year of COVID in this country. We have an opportunity to make a change in how we value human life.
The Trump administration’s response to COVID was appalling. President Trump frequently made light of the disease, spread misinformation through racist slurs, and even held a super spreader event to confirm Justice Amy Coney Barrett. As thousands continued to die every day from COVID-19, a daily moment of silence—like the one he held at a 9/11 service—would have been the bare minimum and yet, he failed to act.
Much like vicious homophobia resulted in the Reagan administration’s abandonment of the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s, Trump’s response viciously targeted people of color, including by having an appalling impact on Asian American mental health and safety, and allowing the virus itself to disproportionately take the lives of Black and brown people.
When we consider 9/11, we are moved and willfully encouraged to remember and commemorate the people whose lives were taken far too soon. We are driven to unite and protect each other as fellow Americans. But an integral part of loving our country and our community must involve holding our elected leaders accountable.
We have a pattern of our government sidestepping the truth and avoiding reconciliation based in truth. But it’s of paramount importance that all of us, including the new administration, and especially those who consider themselves patriots, remember 2020 and our government’s response for what it was: a violent, self-indulgent, racist mishandling by the Trump administration and its allies. Our leaders’ response to COVID included exploiting “essential” workers, leaving almost 1 in 7 Black and Latina women unemployed, and worsening the child care crisis to the detriment of providers and working parents—and that’s just scratching the surface.
While 9/11 has been used as the fuel to wage war and enforce new security standards, it would be a great failure if 2020 does not similarly serve as an ignition point for change. As the Biden-Harris administration steps in, they must not only deal with the immediate COVID-19 crisis, but reckon with our history by allowing all of our tragedies to be honestly and thoughtfully memorialized—whether they are inflicted by foreign forces or by those who promise to serve us.