Here is my proposal. I want to propose a Memorial Day for Covid-19. And I don't want to wait until Covid-19 is actually over — I want to do it now. Maybe on Jan. 1.
I think calling it Memorial Day would give it the importance and gravitas it deserves. It means that from time to time, once a year, we would stop and reflect on what we have done wrong and think about how to do it better in the future. And as far as Covid-19 goes, there's a lot that went wrong and a lot that we can and should learn from it.
Ideally, the government will make this Memorial Day official. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the government is slow.
Ideally, the government will make this Memorial Day official. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the government is slow. So let’s take it upon ourselves to do something first. Hopefully the government will catch up. But this is our call to action. If we want something to happen, we need to do it ourselves.
What has unfolded over the past year is a national travesty, which means there's a lot of blame to go around. Very few of us kept to all the rules all of the time. Many of us did not protect all of the older individuals around us as much as we could have. We as a society did not take care of our people who are poor and people who were suffering the most. And we did not seem to care much about each other.
From a social science perspective, Covid-19 is a story of how much we did not care about each other. It's a story of failing the public good. If all of us had the willpower to wear masks, keep social distancing and wash our hands for a month, this travesty might have disappeared to a larger degree. But we somehow were not able to come together. We couldn’t find our collective willpower.
For those of us who did follow the rules, we did so at some personal cost. We were trying to keep the numbers low, to keep the hospital beds open. We were thinking about the staff members, physicians and nurses who were being overwhelmed by the demand. But we didn't as a society, and as a country, take sufficient care of them. They ended up carrying a tremendous burden and paying tremendous personal costs because of our collective inaction.
This is why we must pause. I want us to use those lessons when future tragedies emerge — whether pandemics or other challenges that require us to come together to fight common challenges. Let’s recommit to engage in a better process from now on.
Trust in the government is depressingly low. And of course, if we don't do anything, things will continue to deteriorate. Hopefully people will trust the vaccine and get it. But this process will be a long one. We need to take stock.
In the U.S., we have official federal holidays tied to dead presidents we admire, national myths of our founding and independence and two days specific to our service members. Memorial Day, celebrated at the end of May each year, is dedicated to members of the military who have died performing their military service. All of these holidays have different meanings, but they are all, in their own way, an opportunity to gather and think and the U.S. as a collective effort.
A Covid-19 Memorial Day would share a lot in common with the May Memorial Day, but it would also share a lot in common with holidays like Mandela Day in South Africa. Mandela Day, which is an international holiday celebrated on Nelson Mandela's birthday in July, is supposed to be a day of collective action and community service. The point is not just that people think about South Africa’s former president and freedom fighter, but they also commit to giving back to society in his honor.
To those who might say, "Well, a lot of bad things happen in the U.S. all the time. Why does the coronavirus deserve a special designation?" I would argue that our collective failure here is different. The reality is that while Americans love to talk of independence and freedom, we are still deeply dependent on each other in all kinds of ways. And for me, this year has been a real warning: This is what happens in a society that doesn't care about each other.
We have created so much misery thus far with our failures thus far. But we can stop it and do better. Jan. 1 is the beginning of a new year. It’s a time of optimism. And for the United States, it’s a time to say we’re sorry. Let’s think about the ways our actions have consequences. Let’s reflect on our personal choices and our society’s choices. Let’s promise to do better — and let’s start by saying sorry and promise to do better at the last run of this pandemic and in the pandemics to come.
As told to THINK editor Meredith Bennett-Smith; edited for clarity.