by Alison Bateman-House
To memorialize the death of over 1,000 San Franciscans due to AIDS, in 1985 gay rights activist Cleve Jones asked individuals attending an annual march to create placards containing the name of those who had died. After the march, these were taped to a building, where they resembled a patchwork quilt. Thus was born the idea of creating a memorial quilt, for which individuals created panels in honor of individuals lost to this infectious disease. The quilt raised awareness of AIDS, and it humanized those who lost their lives to it for those who had no first-hand experience with the disease. Equally important, it provided a way for those left behind to memorialize their friends and loved ones and a nation an outlet to express its grief. We need these same things now, 35 years later, as our nation once again deals with an infectious disease that has ruthlessly killed so many; this time, over 252,000 Americans and more than 1.3 million people globally.
As with AIDS, Covid-19 had not affected the United States equally. The disease has left some communities devastated, while others have been relatively unscathed. As a result, in the face of calls for public health responses such as shut-downs or mask mandates, some have responded by saying Covid-19 is not a concern in their community, or that they don’t know anyone who has the disease, thereby discounting the need for such measures. Furthermore, the president has sought to play down the pandemic by, first, claiming that the disease was a hoax, then that it affects “virtually nobody,” and these claims have been amplified by some of his supporters. In such a context, an opportunity to communally mourn and share stories about those who have died as a result of the novel coronavirus will not come from our current political leaders. At the same time, the local and personal rituals we have of mourning have been impacted. At the peak of Covid-19-related deaths in New York City, the dead who were not quickly claimed by family members were buried in a mass grave in an island inaccessible to many. Funerals have been limited in terms of attendance and time, and communal events such as wakes and sitting shiva have been discouraged. Visitor restrictions at hospitals and senior care facilities meant that some patients died without the presence of those who loved them during their final minutes. All of this – the deaths, the day-to-day impact on people’s lives, and the lack of normal social coping mechanisms – is negatively impacting mental health of Americans.
We desperately need an opportunity to grieve. Yet, we need to do so in a socially-distanced way, that minimizes chances for spread of the infection. Construction of a Covid-19 memorial quilt fits the bill. Individuals, or Covid-19 pods, can work on quilt panels memorializing those who have died, with completed panels shared through photos or videos uploaded to a central online repository. The public can browse this virtual quilt to learn about and discover commonalities with those who have died. The newly-minted legions of home face-mask makers may choose to help those who desire to create memorial panels but who lack sewing experience or capability.
Once it is safe to do so, there can be public gatherings in which the panels are joined together to become physical quilts which may then be displayed in localities throughout the country and in nationally symbolic areas like Times Square or the National Mall in Washington, D.C. One day such communal gatherings will be possible again. But we need not, and in fact cannot, wait until that time to mourn our losses. Let us start this process now, physically isolated but socially united in the endeavor of transforming our personal sorrows into a communal symbol.
Alison Bateman-House is an assistant professor of medical ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
UPDATED 12/10/2020: Work has begun on such a project: COVID Memorial Quilt, by Madeleine Fugate.