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What would a Covid memorial look like? Designers share ideas for 'unprecedented' tribute

"We don't have the luxury of waiting," said architect Daniel Libeskind. "There's an urgency because there are people here now."
A view of \"In America: Remember\", public art installation commemorating all Americans who have died of Covid-19, in Washington DC on Sept. 24, 2021.
A view of "In America: Remember," a public art installation commemorating all the people who have died of Covid-19 in the U.S., in Washington on Sept. 24.Yasin Ozturk / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — There is no memorial to the estimated 675,000 people killed in the U.S. in the 1918 Influenza pandemic on the National Mall. But if there were, some think, the country would have done a better job handling Covid-19.

"I think we could have been much better prepared had we been more culturally aware about what happened in 1918," said Spencer Bailey, the author of a recent book about memorials who has an unusually personal connection to memorials. "One of the reasons that we've found ourselves in our scrambled response to Covid is there are barely any memorials to the flu of 1918."

Many now intend to make sure this pandemic doesn't get lost to history like the last one. While it will most likely be years before anyone builds a Covid memorial in Washington, architects, artists and people touched by the pandemic from around the world are already thinking about ways to remember it, which might require reinventing the idea of memorials.

Bailey has been thinking about how we memorialize tragedy since he was a child, when an iconic photograph of him being carried away from an Iowa plane crash in which his mother died ended up as the model for a monument to the disaster.

Bailey was honored, but he felt it didn't do justice to the loss by trying to tell an uplifting story of heroism, and he thinks any Covid memorial needs to be "about understanding and dealing with trauma."

"There have been so many lives lost around the world. I think it would be advantageous to start thinking at an unprecedented scale," he said.

Image: People visit artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg's "In America: Remember," a temporary art installation made up of white flags to commemorate Americans who have died of Covid-19, on the National Mall in Washington on Sept. 22, 2021.
People visit artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg's "In America: Remember," a temporary art installation made up of white flags to commemorate people who have died of Covid-19 in the U.S., on the National Mall in Washington on Sept. 22.Patrick Semansky / AP

The design challenges are immense, said the famed architect Daniel Libeskind, who designed the master plan for the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site and several Holocaust memorials.

No one knows what a pandemic monument is supposed to look like, and there are few historical examples to draw on. How would it tell the whole story without losing sight of individual ones? How would it incorporate the global proportions of the pandemic while being site-specific? How would it serve both the current generation of those touched by Covid and future generations that may have no personal experience with it?

"It's unprecedented," said Libeskind, who is working on a memorial for the 11 people killed in the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. "Just the vastness of the numbers. And the idea that each number is a name. And each name is a story."

Current law says new monuments can't even be considered for the National Mall until at least 25 years after a historic event or the death of the person to be honored. Congress, however, which has to authorize new monuments, can make exceptions, as lawmakers are considering doing for a proposed Global War on Terror Memorial.

Libeskind, who pushed back against calls to leave the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks untouched for some period of time, said it's more important to create a place where people affected by the tragedy can find solace and meaning in their lifetimes.

"We don't have the luxury of waiting," he said. "There's an urgency because there are people here now. Their memory is a fire burning in their hearts."

A memorial to those lost to disease would be in keeping with a growing trend toward memorializing people lost in a wide array of societal traumas, from the police shooting of a Black woman to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.

Julie Rhoad, the former president and CEO of the foundation that oversees the AIDS Memorial Quilt, said honoring ordinary people, not just great leaders, "animates democracy in a profound, human and artistic way."

Rhoad, now at MASS Design Group, which designed the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama — the first major memorial to the legacy of slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow — said such places need to not only remember the past, but also have an impact on the future.

"Monuments and memorials are a place to envision how future generations learn from the past in order to not make the mistake a second time," she said. "They show us that we're all connected to one another over geography and time, over generations."

People walk through 'In America: Remember,' a public art installation commemorating all the Americans who have died due to Covid-19, on the National Mall Sept. 21, 2021 in Washington, DC.
People walk through "In America: Remember," a public art installation commemorating all the people who have died of Covid-19 in the U.S., on the National Mall in Washington on Sept. 21.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Still, there are few memorials to those killed by disease.

In Hong Kong, a SARS memorial personalizes the early 2000s outbreak by featuring busts of health care workers it killed. And in Vienna, 21st century Austrians dealing with Covid found new meaning in their Plague Column, a Baroque memorial in the city center to the tens of thousands of people killed in an outbreak of the disease in 1679.

Smaller or temporary Covid memorials have sprung up across the country and around the world, from floral hearts in New York City to empty chairs in Phoenix to a memorial park in India built using the ashes of 6,000 people whose remains were never claimed after the virus killed them.

In Milan, Italy, which was hit hard by the first wave of the pandemic, architect Angelo Renna suggested turning the city's historic San Siro soccer stadium into a massive Covid memorial when the stadium's future was in doubt last year. The installation would have planted thousands of cypress trees — common in Mediterranean cemeteries — in the empty stands.

"My hope is to create a spiritual and sacred place in which people will be able to reconnect with their beloved ones," he told the architecture news site Dezeen.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson established a UK Commission on Covid Commemoration to develop ideas for a future memorial, saying a "national endeavour — above party politics — will remember the loved ones we have lost."

Because the pandemic affected the entire world, some, like Rojkind Arquitectos of Mexico City, have proposed designs that could be replicated around the world, perhaps with local flourishes, connecting cities in a shared experience. Others have floated New York City, the U.S. center of the pandemic during its earliest months, as another location.

But for Americans, the National Mall holds a unique place as the place "where the nation comes to remember," as the National Park Service put it.

For two weeks recently, more than 600,000 little white flags cropped up amid the war memorials and marble statues on the Mall, commemorating each U.S. life lost in the pandemic, with more added every day.

"People have reported to me that this has given them solace, that they're beginning to really start that grieving process," said Suzanne Firstenberg, the artist behind the temporary installation. "One woman said to me: 'I have all this time felt as though I was mourning in isolation from my dad. It's been really lonely. But coming here' — I see this all that time — 'I wasn't alone.'"

And for many visitors, it is the right place for something more permanent.

"If you're going to do it, this is the place to do it," said Sean Cusick, who said he came from Boston to pay his respects. "It helps you visualize the loss of our country, and it's something a lot more people need to see."