March for the dead, fight for the living

Earlier this weekend, I attended a protest in New York City called, “March for the Dead.” The event sought to memorialize New Yorkers who died of COVID-19 and demand that the federal government better address the realities of this pandemic and protect vulnerable Americans.

After a rally and a silent, candlelit march across the Brooklyn Bridge, the protest finished with a reading of names. Two organizers read the names of 1,709 New Yorkers whose lives were lost in this pandemic in front of a makeshift memorial comprised of candles and signs. The names came from a database compiled by local NYC publication THE CITY, the Columbia Journalism School, and the CUNY Craig Newmark Journalism School; they comprise only a small fraction (7.2%) of New Yorkers who have died due to COVID-19.

(Disclaimer: one of the event’s organizers, Justin Hendrix, volunteers with me at the COVID Tracking Project.)

While this newsletter is a journalism project, it felt fitting this week for me to share a few lines I wrote on the subway home after listening to the name reading. “March for the Dead” reminded me of the people behind the numbers I spend so much time compiling and analyzing—a reminder that I think anyone covering this pandemic sorely needs.

how long would it take to read all the names?

1,700 names in the city’s memorial. it took an hour, maybe, give or take.  i wasn’t really keeping track. i was listening to the names, the way they rang out in the open square. the way they fell heavy on the pavement, like drops of rain at the start of a thunderstorm. but this is not the start of a thunderstorm, of course. it’s a hurricane, and another hurricane, and a wildfire, and a tornado, and all of it preventable. the father of one of the readers, kept in a nursing home. grocery store clerks, cafe workers, nurses, and parents, siblings. so many pairs of names that rhyme. so many bodies in tiny apartments, bodies in shelters, bodies hooked up to breathing machines, gasping for every molecule of oxygen.

this is not the start of a thunderstorm. it’s a hurricane, and we aren’t stopping it. an hour, perhaps, for 1,700 names. how long would it take, to read all 25,000 names of those who died in new york city? all 175,000 who died in america? all the thousands more who have not been counted yet? how long would it take to talk to the families and friends of the people who bore those names, to find out their favorite colors, what they ate for breakfast, what they were looking forward to this year? how long would it take to attend 175,000 funerals?

this is a metric i can’t count. my back would crack under the weight. all i can do is sit in the square, sit quietly, and listen. and then i return to work, i keep counting the numbers i can count. i let them echo. 

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