By now we are horrifyingly familiar with the staggering toll that COVID-19 has taken among African Americans. As a study in late May by the American Public Media Research Lab reported, the mortality rate for Black Americans was 2.4 times higher than the rate for white Americans, and 2.2. times as high as the rate for Asian and Latinx people. To put it another way—if Black Americans had died from COVID-19 at the (horrible, but lesser) rate of white Americans, 13,000 of them would still be alive. Such statistics have provided a stark backdrop for the protests in recent weeks against racial injustice.
A less well-known disparity related to COVID-19 may also exist in the mode in which we memorialize and commemorate the people who have died as a result of this pandemic. When more than 100,000 people die from a disease, it is impossible to publicly acknowledge all of them. But according to the non-profit New York news website THE CITY, less than 5 percent of the approximately 21,000 New York City residents who died as a result of the pandemic have been commemorated in a news outlet. And those who are memorialized tend to skew wealthier and whiter. Placing a death notice is not free. In The New York Times, an online-only notice starts at $79.
Unequal memorialization isn’t just a sad side-effect of the crisis. As historian Drew Faust put it to me in an email, the “the way humans treat the dead reflects how they value human life.” In a recent op-ed for The Washington Post, Faust writes about how Americans, horrified by the haphazard way in which the dead were disposed of during the Civil War—or worse, brutalized as a kind of ongoing warfare against the enemy, even in death—began to accept a national responsibility for appropriately somber burial. After the war, Faust writes, “300,000 Union soldiers were disinterred from fields, forests and byways and given the dignity of burial in 74 new national cemeteries.” In the 19th century we had fields and forests for anonymous burial; today, in New York, we have Hart Island, where coffins containing unclaimed bodies are stacked three high and interred in graves dug by inmates from Rikers Island. This is where some unclaimed coronavirus victims have ended up.
When historians tell the story of this pandemic, they will have the unquantifiable tool of social media to understand the lives of the deceased and how suffering was universal, but not equally distributed. But no historian can scan 100,000 social media accounts, and this does not seem like the kind of work we want to entrust to AI. Historians will also, inevitably, turn to published and trusted news sources to validate, winnow the records—and what will those accounts reflect? We may, in the end, be able to quantify the racial disparities in mortality, and we may learn important and necessary lessons from those disparities; but that should not be the end of the story.
In May, THE CITY put out a call for New Yorkers to submit stories about individuals who have died as a result of COVID-19, with the goal of honoring every person who has died in New York City. Through that call-out, and by scanning social media, and reaching out to a number of community-based groups, the publication has since put together a list of more than 700 people whose lives they intend to commemorate—though this is only the beginning. “The difference between what The New York Times did, when they published the names of the dead on their front page, and what we are intending to do,” says Terry Parris Jr., the Engagement Director for THE CITY and one of the leaders of the project, “is that our project is more iterative. We’re not trying to come out with the final product immediately.”
Parris, along with his co-leader, Derek Kravitz, an instructor at the Columbia Journalism School, are working with a handful of CITY staff members, about 20 students from the Columbia Journalism School and The Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, and volunteer journalists to register, catalog, and, eventually, memorialize, victims. “In the same way that healthcare workers came out to volunteer,” says Parris, “we had a feeling that journalists would want to do something.” (Journalists who are interested in helping out should email email@example.com to register their interest.) Last week, the team launched the initial iteration of the project, and it is a haunting and moving portrait of the diverse lives lost to this pandemic: Michelle Alexander, 29, a paraprofessional at P.S. 194 in Sheepshead Bay; Mireya Vargas Cardona, 62, who opened two businesses in Queens and "refused to ever leave this city because she was so thankful for everything it gave her,” according to her daughter; Ed Fuld, 85, who fled Nazi Germany with his family when he was 3 years old.
The two journalists are quick to acknowledge that there is room for improvement in their methodology, particularly in reaching distinct populations within New York City. “This post is in English,” Parris points out, referring to the initial call-out. “We know that we need to post it in Spanish. We need to post it in Yiddish.” Kravtiz describes the work they have done with a Bangladeshi doctor, who, in response to a Facebook post, collected 170 names of people whose deaths had been reported primarily or only in Bangla media and then shared that list with THE CITY.
When I spoke to Parris and Kravitz, it was toward the end of a week of protests, and I asked them if their thinking about the project had changed in recent days. “From the beginning,” says Kravitz, “the focus was, how do we make sure that people are not just counted as statistics? One might look at the number and not really feel what that number means to New York and to families.”
“Post-COVID,” Parris adds, “there’s going to be a lot of people who are forgotten. We want to offer an opportunity for those people to not be forgotten. There are 21,000 challenges to this project, but there is one reason to pursue it, and that’s to remember the New Yorkers who have died. That’s the most important reason, and it supersedes all the challenges.”
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