U.S. COVID-19 survivors to honor dead Sunday, rally online for effective pandemic response

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Coronavirus survivors are gathering online Sunday to honor the more than 207,000 U.S. lives lost in the pandemic and call for a national strategy to halt its relentless march.

Several of the 20,000 flags representing the 200,000 lives lost in the United States in the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic are placed on the National Mall in Washington, U.S., September 22, 2020. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/Files

The National COVID-19 Remembrance event is organized by Covid Survivors for Change and endorsed by more than a dozen groups, including many that support Americans reeling from the swift and lonely deaths of loved ones or battling lingering health issues from their infections.

Billed as the first national memorial service, it will be livestreamed from Washington, DC just days after President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump announced that they are among the more than 7 million reported cases in the United States. The couple’s infections came after months of criticism that Trump has politicized the U.S. COVID-19 response by undermining public health experts and proven interventions like mask wearing. The U.S. has suffered more confirmed COVID-19 deaths than any other nation.

“I don’t want our loved ones to be relegated to statistics,” said Sabila Khan, whose father died alone in a New Jersey hospital in April.

“The idea that I couldn’t show up for him is the one thing that is going to haunt me forever,” said Khan, who started a COVID-19 bereavement group on Facebook and now is mobilizing other survivors so “our loved ones didn’t die in vain.”

María Del Rosario Palacios, a COVID-19 survivor in Gainesville, Georgia, says the event’s planned call for a national moment of silence is overdue.

“I don’t think we’ve paused enough to measure the magnitude of the problem,” said Del Rosario Palacios, who cares for her mother - a formerly fit 57-year-old poultry plant worker who suffered a stroke during her COVID-19 battle. She wants lawmakers to speed up essential workers’ access to short-term disability benefits.

The challenge for organizers is to connect with viewers without making them feel helpless or overwhelmed by the scale of the pandemic, which is killing more than 5,000 Americans each week.

“We’re not built, as humans, to understand what it means to have (that many) people die every single day - but what we can understand is one story,” said Chris Kocher, who drew on his experience as director of the survivor network at Everytown for Gun Safety when he launched Covid Survivors for Change.

“Providing that narrative where one has been missing can be incredibly powerful in overcoming misinformation or misperceptions,” said Ann Christiano, director of the University of Florida’s Center for Public Interest Communications.

Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by David Gregorio