Time to mourn: As COVID-19 deaths reach 400,000, let's remember those we have lost

Betsy Hodges and Tom Tait, Opinion contributors
·4 min read

When the 117th Congress was sworn in on Jan. 3, America had lost 352,000 souls to COVID-19; by Wednesday, when President-elect Joe Biden takes office, the country will have lost more than 400,000.

The higher the death toll, the harder it is to fathom. Nearly one out of every 750 Americans has now died, an entire city’s worth of grief and pain.

We are among the few people privileged to know the living, breathing, beautiful value of such numbers. We were once the mayors of Anaheim, Calif., (population 350,000) and Minneapolis (population 429,000); to us, the unfathomable looks a lot like home, like the histories and dreams, the entire worlds, that are nurtured and built across a city’s grid.

Imagine a bird’s eye view: Block after block, but the houses are empty, the streets and schools quiet. Think about Anaheim’s Disneyland, the excited chatter of visiting families silenced; or Minneapolis’ First Avenue club, the music-loving crowds gone.

Hollowed-out neighborhoods, the bonds built over fences and over years dissolved; the American dream, so carefully tended in our immigrant communities, shattered. Historic and cultural landmarks, the American Indian Cultural Corridor in Minneapolis, the curving stucco and clay tiles of Anaheim’s Packing District, the art galleries and the markets, destitute of the human visitors who give such places meaning.

The COVID-19 death toll is likely to exceed the 405,000 U.S. fatalities from World War II.
The COVID-19 death toll is likely to exceed the 405,000 U.S. fatalities from World War II.

And not just that — not just dance floors and grocery stores abandoned, not just offices and front stoops barren — but every act of generosity, every moment of compassion, every smile and outstretched hand, disappeared, along with what might have happened next, the ripples and reverberations that we cannot begin to know. Kindness is contagious, and grows exponentially, but the kindnesses of an entire city’s worth of Americans have been snuffed out by COVID-19’s exponential spread.

Enormity of loss hard to grasp

Of course, we haven’t lost a city — our losses are scattered. We’ve lost artists and plumbers, nurses and delivery drivers, immigrants and locals. We’ve lost countless histories and endless dreams, stories that no one will ever get to hear or to tell. We’ve lost all of the many magnificent things that exist in any town, in any society, over and over, all across this beautiful land.

Perhaps if we had lost a single city, it would be easier to grasp the enormity, to name our grief, to build the space in our hearts to hold it, but how do we grasp 400,000 individual worlds, in all their human glory, gone? How do we name the bottomless grief of knowing that their numbers are yet growing? How do we begin to build the space in our hearts to hold them all?

We don’t pretend to have answers. On Wednesday, when Americans rise and make their coffee, another 4,000 will have died. Soon we will have lost not an Anaheim or a Minneapolis, but a Miami. Then a Kansas City. Then an Atlanta. What the country looks like when COVID-19 is finally vanquished will depend largely on how we live with and carry each other through these unfathomable losses. For Americans to build a post-pandemic world together, we must first be able to mourn together.

A day for unity, remembrance

President-elect Joe Biden has called for today, Jan. 19, to be a moment of national unity and remembrance, as the Lincoln Reflecting Pool and public buildings around the country are illuminated and church bells rung at 5:30 p.m. We hope you will join these efforts in your own home, to pause and reflect, perhaps to light a candle or offer a prayer.

We have lost an entire city. Our loved ones, our leaders, our elders and our children. It’s almost impossible to fathom, but in their honor, in their names, and for ourselves we must try.

Betsy Hodges is the Democratic former mayor (2014 to 2018) of Minneapolis. Tom Tait is the Republican former mayor (2010 to 2018) of Anaheim, Calif.

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: As COVID-19 deaths reach 400,000, it's time to mourn those we've lost