|670,000 FLAGS MARK|
By Debra Adams Simmons, Executive Editor, HISTORY
“Numbers have been inescapable during the coronavirus pandemic—case counts, vaccination rates, the death toll. As of last week, one in 500 Americans had died of COVID-19.
Later today or tomorrow, the United States will pass 675,000 deaths—a grim tally that equals the country’s toll from the 1918 flu pandemic, still the deadliest worldwide outbreak in modern times.
The scale of this devastation is hard to comprehend—except on the National Mall, where more than 670,000 small white flags (pictured above) flutter in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Each flag represents a life lost to COVID-19, Rachel Hartiganwrites for Nat Geo.
“One of those lives is my little brother, John,” says Jeneffer Estampador Haynes (pictured below), who went to Washington, D.C., from her home in Gaithersburg, Maryland, to volunteer at this memorial art installation called In America: Remember. “He was only 30.”
Artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg created the installation with hundreds of volunteers to convey the extent of the loss—and to make a place where the nation can collectively grieve. “We all understand that we’ve gone through a national tragedy,” she says.
Visitors to the installation, which will be on the mall from September 17 through October 3, use one of the thousands of Sharpies on hand to dedicate a flag to someone they’ve lost to COVID-19. Those unable to travel to D.C. can make a request at the installation’s website for a flag to be dedicated for them.
Transcribing the messages is heartbreaking, says volunteer Sara Brenner of Arlington, Virginia. “You’ll get several in the same family,” she says, recalling messages she wrote for a father and a grandfather who died in February 2021, and then for two other family members who died several months later. “We’re speaking for the dead, and we’re grieving for the dead.”
For the living, the flag installation provides some solace. “It shows the world that these were our loved ones,” Haynes says. It has also shown her that even people who haven’t been directly affected by COVID-19 are mourning. “They care,” she says, “and this means a lot.”