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Families, activists call for COVID-19 Memorial Day to be declared in March

"March really is the time in which everything changed for us, so we wanted to set the tone for the entire month," organizer says.
Covid19 death
A woman holds a photograph of her son who passed away from COVID-19 during a memorial and vigil for victims of the disease held in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in March.Aimee Dilger / SOPA Images / Sipa USA via AP
/ Source: TODAY

The first Monday in March could soon become COVID-19 Memorial Day.

Activists are calling for that date to become an annual national holiday — a time for the country to reflect on the lives lost and families impacted by the coronavirus crisis.

There should also be permanent memorials, including a monument on the National Mall in Washington, said Kristin Urquiza, co-founder of the advocacy group Marked By COVID.

“We have gone through a huge, ongoing, slow-moving train wreck together as a nation,” Urquiza, who lives in San Francisco, told TODAY.

“The last thing in the world that we should be doing for our overall health is pretending like it didn't happen.”

One year ago, as the World Health Organization officially labeled the coronavirus crisis a pandemic, Urquiza was immediately concerned about her parents in the Phoenix, Arizona, neighborhood of Maryvale. They were in their 60s — on the edge of the higher risk group — and living in an area that was traditionally under-invested in, she said.

Kristin Urquiza and her father share a happy moment. Mark Urquiza died from COVID-19 on June 30, 2020.Courtesy Kristin Urquiza/Marked By COVID

Urquiza’s father died of COVID-19 in June, less than a month after he was diagnosed with the disease. His name was Mark and as Urquiza pondered all the ways people have been impacted by the coronavirus, she named her organization Marked By COVID to commemorate both him and the mark the disease has left on people’s lives.

“I never imagined that I would lose a relative, let alone my dad,” Urquiza said. Five people in her extended family have since died from the virus.

She explained her group’s mission in a conversation with TODAY:

Why do we need a national COVID-19 Memorial Day?

March really is the time in which everything changed for us, so we wanted to set the tone for the entire month.

The scale of this moment in our history is of a degree larger than anything we've ever experienced in our lifetimes. We are on pace to have more folks perish from this virus than we did from the deadliest conflict in American history, the Civil War.

When I think back to when I was a child, teachings about the Civil War happened over the course of many years, over pages and pages of books. But when I think back to the bubonic plague, the Spanish flu or other public health crises, they were mere blips in the history books.

It is imperative not only to ensure that people who are grieving have a space to collectively heal — and that means permanent spaces for remembrance and mourning — but also write history with the unvarnished truth of what happened so that we learn and never make the same mistakes twice.

Do you think people want to remember or just forget and move on?

Those who are grieving and mourning want to remember and they need to remember.

There may be some people who have barely been impacted by the virus and are tired of seeing news about it, but there is no complete return to normal for people who've been forced to sacrifice a loved one.

The Holocaust was one of the most atrocious, if not the most atrocious crimes against humanity and instead of pushing that under the rug, there is ongoing study of it.

For public health crises, we need to take a similar treatment because it is the only way in which to honor those who have been lost, but it's also the way to figure out and learn.

What would you like to see happen on COVID-19 Memorial Day?

I think similar to what we do on 9/11 is probably appropriate. We know how to remember and mourn. It includes the traditional ways of moments of silence, vigils.

This year’s commemorations were amazing. We had events across the country in over 125 cities where people who have lost loved ones, but also people who have not been impacted at all, holding vigils.

This really is an issue in which people all across America agree is the right thing to do.

How long will it take to have a national memorial day declared?

I anticipate by next year we will all be marking a permanent COVID-19 Memorial Day. Rep. Greg Stanton of Arizona has introduced a resolution calling for a permanent memorial day. Now we need to move to the Senate side to get a companion resolution for it to become law.

Our activists are planning on meeting with their members of Congress. We have a whole cadre of mayors who are also calling for this. It is a groundswell of support. We had bipartisan support in places big and small across the country.

I feel as if remembrance is not only a key part of healing, but it's also a key ingredient in our plight to find unity and a way forward.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.