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White Flags on National Mall Symbolize 670,000 COVID-19 Deaths

A local artist has created a unique memorial in the District to honor the scores of Americans who have died from coronavirus-related illnesses.

On Sept.17, Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, a nationally recognized visual artist based in Bethesda, Md., formally launched the “In America: Remember” exhibit that features over 670,000 small white flags placed across the lawn of the National Mall next to the Washington Monument.

Dana Bash, a CNN anchor and chief political correspondent, served as the host of the ceremony which marked the opening of the new memorial site on the mall near the corner of 15th Street and Constitution Avenue in Northwest.

Her remarks reflected the latest wave of collective grief and frustration about the impact of the pandemic.

“One-in-three families in America have lost a loved one to COVID-19,” Bash said. “This field is growing larger every day due to preventable deaths. This is the largest public participatory exhibit on the National Mall since the AIDS quilt. Each flag represents someone who had hopes and dreams.”

The sheer number of white flags symbolizing individual COVID-19 deaths forced the memorial leaders to change from its original DC Armory location to the National Mall. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)
The sheer number of white flags symbolizing individual COVID-19 deaths forced the memorial leaders to change from its original DC Armory location to the National Mall. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)

The coronavirus and the Spanish flu, the country’s last major pandemic, have many similarities but also bear ominous distinctions. The Associated Press [AP[, in a Sept. 20 story, said the U.S. population a century ago stood at one-third of its present number today, meaning the flu cut a bigger, more lethal swath through the country. However, AP said the COVID-19 crisis serves as a colossal tragedy given the incredible advances in scientific knowledge since then and the failure to take maximum advantage of the vaccines now available.

“Big pockets of American society — and, worse, their leaders — have thrown this away,” medical historian Dr. Howard Markel of the University of Michigan said of the opportunity to vaccinate everyone eligible by now, AP reported.

On the Sept. 19 edition of ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulous,” host Martha Raddatz said, “what has been billed as the summer of freedom has come and gone” due to the spread of the delta variant. Her report said on June 19, 11,634 cases a day of the coronavirus existed but as of Sept. 19, 143,000 infections had been reported. She said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said during the week of Sept 12-18, 994,506 cases of the virus had been reported.

The exhibit features a huge sign showing the number of coronavirus deaths that have accumulated since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. During the ceremony, the number 670,072 stood prominent on the sign.

Firstenberg said the sign’s number comes from the latest coronavirus death tally by the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Research Center in Baltimore. As the number grows, Firstenberg, with the assistance of others, will place one white flag to honor the dead. There’s also a digital component where families of the dead can make comments on a website. This activity will occur daily until the exhibit ends on Oct. 3.

Artistic Activism Fueled by Anger 

Firstenberg said the presence of the pandemic fueled her artistic activism.

“The pandemic outraged me when it started,” she said. “What outraged me more is how the response to the pandemic devalued the lives of the elderly and people of color.”

Firstenberg started her activism last year by placing over 230,000 white flags outside the DC Armory near RFK Stadium. Comments by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) suggesting the elderly that have died due to the coronavirus could be a boon to the U.S. economy, horrified her. She bought a quarter of a million white flags for the DC Armory exhibit and credited the administration of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser for supporting her efforts.

Firstenberg said America’s youth will carry the burden of the pandemic with them throughout their lives.

“About 130,000 children have lost caregivers due to the pandemic,” she said. “We have to remember that kids will face this for a lifetime. Keeping that in mind, I am designing lesson plans for teachers for children [they teach] through the eighth grade. Teachers can teach their students about this pandemic and help their kids get through this. The students need to know that they can express their emotions about the pandemic through art.”

Despite the grim tone of the exhibit, she has maintained an upbeat attitude about the future.

“We have to remember that we will all get through this,” she said.

Praise for the Exhibit

In addition to Firstenberg’s remarks, the ceremony included entertainment provided by: The String Queens; the Jason Max Ferdinand Singers crooning “Lift Every Voice,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “From Sea to Shining Sea;” and a message from spoken word artist Archie the Messenger.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland spoke for about six minutes and began by urging everyone to “get vaccinated.” Haaland said those killed by the coronavirus “had relatives who loved them.”

“These flags are not only for those who died from COVID-19 but for those they left behind,” she said. “Each white flag represents someone’s loved one.”

The secretary noted 37 of her employees have succumbed to the coronavirus.

Dr. Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian, said “these flags represent a cross-section of the nation.”

“The National Mall is the great repository of national memory,” he said. “So many communities of color have been disproportionately affected by this disease. These flags get our arms around the magnitude we have lost.”

Bowser thanked Firstenberg for her activism regarding the pandemic and pointed out the local connection.

“I appreciate this exhibit for so many reasons,” the mayor said. “Represented among these flags are more than 1,100 District residents. It is important to get your children vaccinated. I encourage you to reach out to your family and tell them to get vaccinated.”

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