From China to Spain, world leaders are trying to remember the thousands lost during the pandemic.
It took President Donald Trump about a day before he said anything official about the United States reaching the somber milestone of 100,000 dead from the coronavirus.
“To all of the families & friends of those who have passed, I want to extend my heartfelt sympathy & love for everything that these great people stood for & represent,” he tweeted on Thursday morning.
It’s was a nice — though expected — gesture from the president, and adds to his order last week to fly American flags at half-staff in remembrance of those who’ve died.
But his actions pale in comparison to what other world leaders have done to commemorate their lost citizens.
In March, Italy observed a moment of silence for its coronavirus victims. Last month in China, President Xi Jinping led a nationwide day of mourning. Also in April, the United Kingdom held a moment of silence for health care workers who died on the job and even gave their families money in compensation for their loss. And this week, Spain began a 10-day remembrance period — the longest ever for the democracy — for its more than 27,000 dead.
Certain US states and cities have held their own ceremonies, but there has yet to be a Trump-led, national remembrance effort. A White House spokesperson told me there were no announcements to make regarding such a potential event.
But in case one is in the works, Trump can grab some ideas from how others have conducted such ceremonies.
Italy was one of the first nations besides China to sustain a massive coronavirus outbreak, so it’s no surprise that it was also among the first to lead a remembrance ceremony.
On March 31, only six weeks after the country’s first confirmed case, Italy held a nationwide minute of silence for coronavirus victims as flags were lowered to half-staff. The idea for the 60-second commemoration came from a group of mayors to show solidarity with the Lombardy region, the hardest-hit part of the country.
“This moment of silence of mayors, in which even the presidential palace and the Vatican participated, is an important moment for our country, showing unity from north to south,” Antonio Decaro, mayor of the southern city of Bari, said at the time. “All the mayors have gathered together in a kind of ideal embrace, most importantly to be close to the places that are suffering the most, where the virus has been the most ferocious, to be close to the mourning for those who have died.”
“We are trying to send a message of hope,” Decaro added.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte backed the idea strongly, saying the moment of silence was vital for national unity and solidarity during a trying time.
The minute led to some stunning scenes, such as Venice’s mayor standing by still waters due to empty canals, which are normally packed with tourists and regular traffic. Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi also gave a speech in honor of health care workers from a barren Piazza del Campidoglio, a major symbol of the city. American military leaders at US Army Garrison Italy in Vincenza also joined their counterparts for the moment of silence.
Xi Jinping, China’s president, normally doesn’t like doing anything that makes him or his nation look weak. But on April 4, he led a day of mourning for the thousands who died of the disease that originated in his country.
Dressed in black, Xi and other regime leaders stood in the main governing compound in Beijing wearing white flowers to commemorate the dead. Throughout the day, Chinese flags were lowered to half-staff and no forms of entertainment were allowed in the country. The Chinese gaming giant Tencent, for example, suspended all online games during the mourning period.
The day of mourning, which coincided with a national tomb-sweeping festival to honor ancestors, was observed by millions of people. In other major Chinese cities, citizens in face masks gathered for three minutes in silence while air raid sirens blared in a tribute to the dead.
“I can’t count how many times I have cried, and I thought I had dried all my tears,” a woman who said she’d lost her mother to the disease told Al Jazeera. “But when the siren went off, I started to cry my heart out — I miss my mother dearly and I don’t know how I am going to live from now on.”
There have been other forms of commemoration as well, such as when state-run newspapers, many of which are normally printed in color, released editions for the day entirely in black and white. Chinese citizens on social media made similar changes to their profile pictures.
Xi didn’t personally offer any public remarks during the day of mourning, but others in the government did. “The spirit of the martyrs must be carried on,” Ying Yong, Hubei province’s top official, told grieving families on the day.
On April 28, the UK observed a minute of silence for the roughly 100 health care workers who had died treating Covid-19 patients at that point. Honoring medical staff made sense for Britain, not only because they serve on the front lines of the medical response to the crisis, but also because the country’s National Health Service is very popular.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on only his second day back after recovering from a severe case of Covid-19, stood in silence 6 feet apart from cabinet members as flags were lowered to half-staff and public transportation was temporarily stopped. He supported the idea after a campaign led by medical schools and unions pushed for the minute of silence. Less than 10 days later, it happened.
The leaders of Scotland and Wales — separate political entities within the United Kingdom — also held similar ceremonies.
Dame Donna Kinnair, head of the Royal College of Nursing, which pushed for the short memorial, said in a statement that she was “heartened to hear how many people took part in the minute’s silence to honor the memory of staff who have tragically died during the pandemic.”
“We thought it was important to pay tribute publicly to those who have lost their lives to the virus, and I am proud that so many took the time to do so this morning,” she continued.
A day before the national ceremony, Johnson’s government also announced that families of deceased staff would each receive more than $78,500 in compensation from the government.
Spain, one of Europe’s hardest-hit nations by the coronavirus, started a 10-day mourning period on Wednesday for coronavirus victims. It’s the longest national remembrance of its kind since the country became a democracy in 1978, and the longest yet of any nation during the current crisis.
It was necessary to do, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said in a recent tweet, because Spaniards should “all express our sorrow and pay homage to those who have died.”
Flags outside the European country’s 14,000 public buildings will fly at half-staff during the 10-day period, and the king has agreed to lead a national ceremony once the nation’s lockdown lifts.
El dolor y el reconocimiento de toda España a quienes han fallecido víctimas del #COVID19.
— Pedro Sánchez (@sanchezcastejon) May 27, 2020
It’s possible Sánchez didn’t make this decision on his own. For weeks, leaders and followers of the political opposition had bashed him for not holding a national ceremony to honor the dead. “They should have declared the mourning days ago,” Madrid resident Conchita Hernández told the Associated Press on Tuesday.
That may be the case, but now Spain’s government says such a memorial is necessary. The dead are “men and women whose lives have been suddenly cut short, leaving friends and family in great pain, both from the sudden loss and from the difficult circumstances in which it has occurred,” government spokesperson María Jesús Montero said soon after the mourning period was approved by the cabinet earlier this month.
There are no official rules for how life and business are to be conducted during the mourning period — it’s completely up to the government. As of now, it appears there will be a moment of silence on each day and a ban on any political party from holding a rally during the 10-day period. The government has also requested that any public event feature one minute of silence at its start.
In such unprecedented times, it’s striking to see a nation lead with such a sweeping national commemoration.
Meanwhile, the United States — which just recently hit the somber milestone of 100,00 dead, the world’s largest official total — doesn’t seem to have any plans to follow suit.
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