Biden Marks Covid Milestone in Emotional White House Ceremony

Speaking somberly and drawing on his own personal experience, President Biden sought not only to honor the dead, but also to comfort those who have lost loved ones.



By David E. Sanger and Sheryl Gay Stolberg

WASHINGTON — President Biden urged the nation on Monday night to “resist becoming numb to the sorrow” that the novel coronavirus had inflicted, marking the staggering milestone of more than a half-million Americans dead from the pandemic in a solemn ceremony at the White House.

The country passed the grim toll around 5 p.m., and bells began tolling at the National Cathedral, resounding across a capital with flags lowered to half-staff. About an hour later, Mr. Biden appeared in the Cross Hall of the White House and pulled a card from his jacket pocket that he said was updated each day with the number of those infected — and those who died — from Covid-19.

Speaking somberly and drawing on his own personal experience, Mr. Biden sought not only to honor the dead, but also to comfort those who have lost loved ones, many of whom “took their final breath alone.”

Looking into the camera, the president addressed the survivors directly, alluding several times to the loss of his first wife, an infant daughter and, later, his eldest son.

“I know all too well,” he said. “I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens. I know what it’s like when you are there holding their hands; there’s a look in their eye and they slip away. That black hole in your chest — you feel like you’re being sucked into it. The survivors remorse, the anger, the questions of faith in your soul.”

It was a strikingly emotional moment, and a testament to a nation’s failure to act in the face of a calamity that would take the lives of more Americans in a year’s time, Mr. Biden noted, than died in World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined. “More lives lost to this virus,” he said, “than any other nation on Earth.”

Later, Mr. Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, along with Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, exited the White House en route to the South Lawn through a door that was draped in black cloth; the stairs leading up to the Truman Balcony were seen dotted with votive candles.

The two couples, wearing black masks, bowed their heads in a moment of silence as a military band played “Amazing Grace.” When the music stopped, the president made the sign of the cross and turned to walk back inside.

The White House ceremony was particularly notable because President Donald J. Trump refused to mark the losses or hold such remembrances, knowing that any focus on the individual lives lost would quickly raise the question of how the government failed to respond more quickly and aggressively.

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