At dusk on the eve of the presidential inauguration, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and their spouses stood on the National Mall. Behind them glowed the Washington Monument. The reflecting pool was flanked by beams of light. That day, January 19, 2021, marked almost exactly a year to the day since the first reported case of COVID-19 in the United States. It was also the day the country surpassed four hundred thousand deaths from the virus.
“To heal, we must remember,” Biden said during his remarks. “It’s hard, sometimes, to remember. But that’s how we heal.” Vice President Harris echoed the idea that in the face of social trauma, ritual itself is an act of survival. “For many months, we have grieved by ourselves. Tonight, we grieve—and begin healing—together.” They encouraged all Americans to light candles in their windows as an act of collective mourning.
Watching the livestreamed memorial for the victims of the pandemic felt like shaking off the bleary hangover of a nightmare, blinking awake from a cloudy half-reality. In its ordinariness and symbolic familiarity, the ritual seemed like the most obvious act imaginable: right, of course. This is what we should have been doing all along.
In many ways, the service of lament felt like the first honest words we’ve heard about the pandemic from elected leaders. Hundreds of thousands of people have died early, lonely, confusing deaths. We’ve lost jobs and sanity and the consolation of friends, classrooms and communities and rites of passage, the everyday touches and public intimacies of an embodied life. The losses are incalculable. Everything has gone wrong. It has been a terrible year.
The ritual felt true precisely because it avoided the typical rhetoric used to describe our response to the pandemic. Soon after the virus arrived in the United States, the lexicon of war became, predictably, the default way of talking about the situation. Doctors and nurses were “front-line soldiers” in a campaign against an “invisible enemy.” The dead had lost their “battles” with COVID-19. Such language persists in the commentary on vaccine development—“Operation Warp Speed” sounds like a cartoonish riff on a military campaign. In a January 4 interview on National Public Radio, Dr. Leana Wen decried the slow vaccination rollout. “We need a wartime effort,” she emphasized, led by an “army of vaccinators.”
These war metaphors for disease are so ingrained in common speech that it is almost hard to come up with alternatives. Such metaphors have their merits—summoning strength, evoking courage—but they are ultimately inadequate. In her 1978 essay Illness as Metaphor, philosopher Susan Sontag argues that cloaking speech about disease in metaphorical language assigns to pathogens a moral quality and their sufferers a sense of punitive responsibility. Those vanquished in their battles against their internal enemies have perhaps, we can’t help but think, not fought hard enough. They’ve failed.