For Kristin Urquiza, there are two dimensions: before Covid, and with it. It’s as if the arrow of time veered off into an entirely new direction, to a world where nearly one million of our loved ones have vanished and millions more are struggling with the long-term effects of a mysterious illness.
“It feels like my father disappeared,” Urquiza said. Her father died on 30 June 2020, at the age of 65, in an Arizona hospital with only an ICU nurse holding his hand. “That shadow, or that loss, is omnipresent.”
And compounding the wrenching grief: many Americans, especially political leaders, don’t want to talk or even think about it, she said. They want to push the pandemic as far behind them as possible, even as people continue dying from Covid every day.
“It’s a taboo subject,” she said. “There’s a rush to downplay and normalize this experience.” She aches to think that her dad’s death will always be associated with this crisis – one that no one wants to see.
The US is edging toward a grim milestone: one million dead from Covid-19. But there has been little recognition of the massive fatalities from the pandemic; no memorial day has been set aside to mourn everything and everyone lost to Covid.
Urquiza wants to change that. She is the co-founder of Marked by Covid, a grassroots group with more than 100,000 members who are advocating for a national day of remembrance. The US Congress is now considering legislation to create a Covid Memorial Day.
When Urquiza was a girl, she watched as the Aids memorial quilt was spread over the National Mall in Washington DC. “I was very young, but I remember very concretely understanding the magnitude of loss and it being breathtaking to me.” She remembers the then-first lady, Hillary Clinton, looking at the quilt panels – seeing, remembering, honoring the dead.
She wishes leaders and Americans would do the same now with Covid.
“I feel like nobody recognizes what we’ve been through and what that means,” she said. “That’s part of the reason why we’ve been focused on memorialization as an act – to recognize not only who we’ve lost, but be able to put a line in the sand as to the gravity of this moment, so that hopefully we can apply some lessons learned to the next time we need to address something on a global scale like this.”
At first, when the pandemic swept across America, Urquiza’s parents were very cautious. But after Arizona’s governor, Doug Ducey declared that the virus was no longer a threat, Urquiza’s father, a lifelong Republican, returned to life as normal.
He was an outgoing guy, the life of the party. He loved going to birthday parties and karaoke with friends. He soon caught the virus in Arizona’s deadly 2020 wave, and then he was gone.
The 19 days between his first symptoms and his last breath “broke me in a way that I didn’t know I could be broken,” Urquiza said. “I felt like I had a front-row seat to a war that nobody else saw.”
She was overwhelmed, not just by wave after wave of grief but also by fury and incomprehension. “How in the world can this happen in the richest, most developed country? This is not what I was brought up to believe this country was. My dad did not deserve this. The other people going through this don’t deserve this. And nobody is saying anything.”
And she was struck by the deep inequities worsened by the pandemic. In her professional life, people were concerned about the pandemic, but it wasn’t walloping them with gale-force winds as it was in her childhood community.
“We’re all on this sinking ship, but we’ve all learned that not everybody has the same perspective,” Urquiza said. “The deep inequities in our society are in Technicolor for us to either confront or try to push away.”
For years, she worked at a non-profit focused on stopping tropical deforestation to protect Indigenous rights and slow climate change. “Given my experience working with frontline communities and advocacy and organizing, I dove into this to be able to help other families have a voice,” she said.
People of color are often disproportionately affected by crises, from climate change to health inequality. Even those who survive are pulled into their wake. “Disasters punch down: we have to leave the jobs, professions, responsibilities, to take on more of that private pain, suffering, loss – to support our communities.”
She wants to transform all this grief into something meaningful – something that could even stop future tragedies from striking with such vicious breadth. This is an opportunity to understand what went wrong and correct the path, to find time’s arrow and redirect it back to a reality that makes more sense.
But before that can happen, first the country needs to look at its losses and understand them, Urquiza said. To acknowledge: “This was real. It happened. It had profound effects.”
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