WASHINGTON (AP) –
With evening remarks and a moment of national silence, President Joe Biden faced the once-unimaginable loss of the country Monday, half a million Americans in the COVID-19 pandemic, while trying to balance mourning. and the hope.
Addressing the “grim and heartbreaking milestone” directly and publicly, Biden stepped to a lectern in the White House’s Cross Hall, removed his mask and delivered an emotional eulogy for more than 500,000 Americans he said he was sorry to meet.
“We often hear people described as ordinary Americans. There is no such thing, ”he said Monday night. “There is nothing ordinary about them. The people we lost were extraordinary. “
“Just like that,” he added, “many of them took their last breath alone.”
A president whose own life has been marked by family tragedy, Biden spoke in deeply personal terms, referring to his own losses as he tried to comfort the vast number of Americans whose lives have been forever changed by the pandemic.
“I know it very well. I know what it’s like not to be there when it happens, ”said Biden, who has long addressed pain more strongly than perhaps any other American public figure. “I know what it feels like when you’re there, holding their hand, as they look into your eyes and scurry away. That black hole in your chest, you feel like you’re being sucked into it. “
The president, who lost his first wife and young daughter in a car crash and later an adult son to brain cancer, carried the pain with a message of hope.
“This nation will smile again. This nation will once again know sunny days. This nation will know joy again. And as we do so, we will remember every person we’ve lost, the lives they lived, the loved ones they left behind. “
He said, “We have to resist becoming numb to pain. We have to resist seeing each life as a statistic, a blur, or news. We must do it to honor the dead. But, equally important, take care of the living. “
The president ordered flags on federal property to be lowered to half-staff for five days and then led the moment of community mourning for those lost to a virus that often prevents people from gathering to remember their loved ones. Monday’s grim threshold of 500,000 deaths was being met contradictory currents: an encouraging decline in coronavirus cases and concerns about the spread of more contagious variants.
Biden’s handling of the pandemic is sure to define at least the first year of his presidency, and his response has shown the inherent tension between preparing the nation for the dark weeks ahead and offering optimism about the vaccine launch. . that could, eventually, end this American tragedy.
After speaking, the President along with First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff stood outside the White House for a moment of silence at dusk. Black flags covered the door through which they entered. Five hundred brightly lit candles, each representing 1,000 lost people, lit up the stairs on either side of them as the Navy Band played a sad rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
The milestone comes just over a year after the first confirmed death in the United States from the coronavirus. Since then, the pandemic has spread throughout the world and the US, stressing the nation’s healthcare system, rocking its economy, and rewriting the rules of everyday society.
In one of his many symbolic breaks with his predecessor, Biden has not shied away from offering memories for the lives lost to the virus. His first stop after arriving in Washington on the eve of his inauguration was to attend a sunset ceremony at the Reflecting Pool of the Lincoln Memorial to mourn the dead.
That gloomy moment on the eve of Biden’s inauguration, typically a moment of celebration when America marks the democratic tradition of a peaceful transfer of power, was a measure of the enormity of the loss to the nation.
The total deaths from COVID-19 in the United States had just surpassed 400,000 when Biden was sworn in. Another 100,000 have died in the last month.
Former President Donald Trump invariably sought to downplay the total, initially stating that the virus would disappear on its own and later closing the prediction that the United States would suffer far fewer than 100,000 deaths. Once the total eclipsed that mark, Trump shifted again, saying the scale of losses was actually a success story because it could have been so much worse.
Outside of the superficial tweets that mark the 100,000 and 200,000 death milestones, Trump did not oversee any moments of national mourning, no memorial services. At the Republican National Convention, he made no mention of suffering, leaving it to first lady Melania Trump.
And at campaign rallies across the country, he wrongly predicted the nation was “turning the corner” from the virus, while he ignored security measures like masks and pressured governors to lift the restrictions against public health councils. In audiotapes released last fall, Trump was revealed to have told journalist Bob Woodward in March that “I always wanted to play it down. I still like to minimize it because I don’t want to create a panic. “
Biden, by contrast, has long relied on his own personal tragedy while comforting those who suffer. He has vowed to speak to the American public about the severity of the crisis and has repeatedly warned that the nation was going through a “very dark winter,” now challenged by the arrival of more contagious virus variants.
Biden has also deliberately set low expectations, particularly about vaccines and when the nation can return to normal, knowing that he could win a political victory if he exceeds them. He’s on track to far exceed his initial promise to deliver 100 million vaccines in his first 100 days, and some public health experts are now urging him to set a much more ambitious goal. The administration says it hopes to have enough vaccines available to all Americans by the end of July.
Biden’s reference to next Christmas for a possible return to normalcy drew attention in a nation weary from the pandemic and seemed less optimistic than projections made by others in his own administration, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, who suggested a I return in the summer.
Lemire reported from New York.