Updated at 6:45 p.m. ET
President Biden and Vice President Harris acknowledged a grim milestone Monday: the deaths of more than 500,000 Americans from COVID-19.
Biden and Harris, along with first lady Jill Biden and second gentleman Doug Emhoff, emerged from the White House at sundown. They stood at the foot of the South Portico, covered in 500 candles honoring the dead, and listened to a Marine Corps band play “Amazing Grace” as they held a moment of silence.
Before the brief ceremony, Biden spoke, emotionally and somberly, from the White House. As he often does in moments of tragedy, Biden spoke directly to people who have lost friends and family members. “I know all too well,” Biden said, “that black hole in your chest. You feel like you’re being sucked into it. The survivor’s remorse. The anger. The questions of faith in your soul.”
Watch Biden’s remarks here:
Biden’s first wife and first daughter were killed in a car crash shortly before he was sworn in as a U.S. senator. His son Beau died from brain cancer when Biden was vice president.
While President Donald Trump repeatedly downplayed and sought to minimize the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden is pushing Americans to acknowledge and directly confront the enormity of the loss that the country has experienced over the past year, even if that action brings pain.
“We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic or a blur,” he said Monday, in the second ceremony he has held to honor people killed in the ongoing pandemic.
“To heal, we must remember. It’s hard, sometimes, to remember,” Biden said on the eve of his inauguration in a similar ceremony at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. At that time, the U.S. had just marked 400,000 COVID-19 deaths. Remembering, he said, is “how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation.”
Biden echoed that sentiment Monday, emphasizing his own experience of loss. “I know it’s hard. I promise you,” he said, “I remember.”
Watch the ceremony here:
Biden acknowledged how each family touched by death during the pandemic has experienced a personal level of pain. “The birthdays, the anniversaries, the holidays without them. And the everyday things — the small things, the tiny things — that you miss the most: that scent when you open the closet, that park that you go by that you used to stroll in. That movie theater where you met. That morning coffee that you shared together.”
Remarkably, Biden’s inauguration-eve ceremony was the country’s first national collective moment of mourning during a pandemic that has upended life around the world, has thrown the economy into a recession and, at this moment, has now killed a half-million people in the United States.
On Monday, ahead of the latest grim milestone, Biden ordered flags on federal property to be flown at half-staff for five days.
As grim of a marker as a half-million dead — more, Biden said Monday, than the American soldiers killed in both world wars and the Vietnam War combined — it comes at a time of comparative hope: New coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all declining. The vaccination of millions of Americans — as well as the federal government’s purchase of hundreds of millions of additional vaccine doses — has pointed to an endpoint that could come sooner, rather than later. But experts caution that the progress is fragile.
Still, the equivalent of a large American city’s population has now died from a disease outbreak that has lasted a bit more than a year. And no matter how quickly the U.S. achieves herd immunity through vaccination and people who have recovered from a coronavirus infection, there is no doubt that many thousands more will die.
“I promise you,” Biden said Monday night, as he often does when delivering eulogies and marking deaths, “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.”