Photo by Evan Vucci/AP

Marking an unholy milestone, the COVID death toll in the US topped 500,000 Monday afternoon – specifically, 500,054, though by the time Joe Biden addressed the nation in the evening to mourn and remember “each person and the life they lived,” the tally he recited from a card he carries daily in his pocket was up to 500, 071. The Washington Post offered some visual aids to help Americans envision the staggering number: It would take a nearly 100-mile caravan of buses to carry that many bodies, or the Vietnam Memorial would have to be a wall 87 feet high to honor them, or Arlington National Cemetery would have to be doubled to bury them. In a brief, poignant ceremony, Biden acknowledged the “truly grim, heartbreaking milestone” with, “That’s more Americans who’ve died in one year in this pandemic than in World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War combined. That’s more lives lost to this virus than any other nation on Earth.”

Foregoing the criminal failures, the ignorance and callousness and inequities behind the numbers, Biden embraced his role as America’s “designated mourner” to draw on his own losses. “I know all too well,” he told family members. “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…The survivor’s remorse, the anger.” Despite the lack of so many rituals that help us grieve, he said, “To heal, you must remember.” He also cited the “profound courage” of those on the frontlines: “You give us hope. You keep us going. You remind us that we do take care of our own.” Finally, before a moment of silence, he urged, “Let this not be a story of how far we fell, but how far we climbed back up.” To imagine the unimaginable number of a half-million deaths, the National Cathedral rang its bells 500 times, each for 1,000 deaths. It took over 50 minutes to bear witness to the carnage.

California funeral. AP photo

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty

Dr. Joseph Varon cradles a COVID patient at Houston’s United Memorial Medical Center. Photo by Go Nakamura/Getty

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