Serving as consoler-in-chief to a nation in perpetual sorrow, President Joe Biden urged Americans on Monday to not allow themselves to grow “numb” as the U.S. reached a devastating and once unimaginable milestone — more than half a million residents killed by the coronavirus.
Biden, whose own life has been marked by tragedy, struck a deeply personal chord with those who have lost loved ones to the pandemic as he held a candle-lighting vigil at the White House to mark the U.S. COVID-19 death toll surging above 500,000.
“While fighting this pandemic for so long, we have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow. We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic or a blur,” said Biden, who lost his baby daughter and first wife to a car crash in 1972 and his oldest son to brain cancer in 2015.
“We must do so to honor the dead, but equally important: To care for the living and those that are left behind. I know all too well. I know what it’s like … That black hole in your chest, you feel like you are being sucked into it.”
The grim threshold passed Monday means COVID-19 has now killed more Americans than World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined. The first coronavirus death in the U.S. was recorded just over a year ago.
In a reminder of how rapidly the bleak toll has amassed, Biden recalled speaking at the National Mall on the eve of his inauguration last month to mark the COVID-19 tally reaching 400,000 American deaths.
“I said, ‘To heal, we must remember.’ I know it’s hard. I promise you I know it’s hard, but that’s how you heal,” said Biden, who also ordered all flags on federal property lowered to half-mast Monday.
“For those of you who have lost loved ones, this is what I know: They are never truly gone. They will always be a part of your heart. I know this as well and it seems unbelievable, but I promise you the day will come when the memory of the loved one you lost will bring a smile to your lips before a tear to your eye. It will come, I promise you.”
After his remarks in the White House Cross Hall, the president put on a face mask and joined first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff on the South Portico, where 500 candles had been assembled on the historic staircases to commemorate the 500,000 lives lost.
After a moment of silence, a military band played “Amazing Grace,” as Biden, Harris and their respective spouses stood 6 feet apart, their heads bowed.
Seeking to balance tragedy with hope, Biden called on Americans in his remarks to keep abiding by social distancing and mask recommendations as the U.S. beats back the virus through a vaccination campaign that public health experts say could bring the pandemic to an end by this fall.
“We ask you to join us, to remember so we can heal, to find purpose in the work ahead, to show that there is light in the darkness,” he said. “This nation will smile again. This nation will know sunny days again. This nation will know joy again, and as we do, we’ll remember each person we’ve lost, the lives they lived, the loved ones they left behind.”
By acknowledging the agony of the pandemic head-on, Biden is drawing a sharp contrast to his predecessor, who regularly downplayed the severity of the virus, was reluctant to develop a federal strategy for fighting it and even mocked public health precautions like face masks while still in office.
After his own bout with COVID-19 in October, former President Donald Trump returned to the White House from Walter Reed Medical Center and tore off his face mask while standing on the very same portico where Biden held Monday’s vigil.
A few months before that defiant return from the hospital, Trump tussled with a reporter who asked how he could claim his administration had the pandemic “under control” when thousands of Americans were dying every day.
“They are dying. That’s true,” Trump said at the time. “It is what it is.”
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