WASHINGTON (AP) — With sunset remarks and a national moment of silence, President Joe Biden on Monday confronted head-on the country’s once-unimaginable loss — half a million Americans in the COVID-19 pandemic — as he tried to strike a balance between mourning and hope.
Addressing the “grim, heartbreaking milestone” directly and publicly, Biden stepped to a lectern in the White House Cross Hall, unhooked his face mask and delivered an emotion-filled eulogy for more than 500,000 Americans he said he felt he knew.
“We often hear people described as ordinary Americans. There’s no such thing,” he said Monday evening. “There’s nothing ordinary about them. The people we lost were extraordinary.”
“Just like that,” he added, “so 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, referencing his own losses as he tried to comfort the huge number of Americans whose lives have been forever changed by the pandemic.
“I know all too well. I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens,” said Biden, who has long addressed grief more powerfully than perhaps any other American public figure. “I know what it’s like when you are there, holding their hands, as they look in your eye and they slip away. That black hole in your chest, you feel like you’re being sucked into it.”
The president, who lost his first wife and baby daughter in a car collision and later an adult son to brain cancer, leavened the grief with a message of hope.
“This nation will smile again. This nation will know sunny days again. This nation will know joy again. And as we do, we’ll remember each person we’ve lost, the lives they lived, the loved ones they left behind.”
He said, “We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow. We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic or a blur or, on the news. We must do so to honor the dead. But, equally important, to care for the living.”
The president ordered flags on federal property lowered to half staff for five days and then led the moment of communal mourning for those lost to a virus that often prevents people from gathering to remember their loved ones. Monday’s bleak threshold of 500,000 deaths was playing out against contradictory crosscurrents: an encouraging drop in coronavirus cases and worries about the spread of more contagious variants.
Biden’s management of the pandemic will surely define at least the first year of his presidency, and his response has showcased the inherent tension between preparing the nation for dark weeks ahead while also offering optimism about pushing out vaccines that could, eventually, bring this American tragedy to a close.
After he spoke, 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 sundown. Black bunting draped the doorway they walked through. Five hundred brilliantly lit candles — each standing for 1,000 people lost — illuminated the stairways on either side of them as the Marine Band played a mournful rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
The milestone comes just over a year after the first confirmed U.S. fatality from the coronavirus. The pandemic has since swept across the world and the U.S., stressing the nation’s health care system, rattling its economy and rewriting the rules of everyday society.