Covid-19 survivors set up 20,000 empty chairs near White House to remember the more than 200,000 victims

By Scottie Andrew, CNN

    (CNN) -- There's been no communal mourning for the nearly 210,000 victims of coronavirus in the US, no national acknowledgment of the devastation the pandemic has wrought on.

To cope, on Sunday, Covid-19 survivors and families of victims placed 20,000 empty chairs on the lawn across from the White House. The display represented less than a tenth of the US death toll from Covid-19.

It's one of the few formal public remembrances of coronavirus victims in the US since the pandemic began.

Survivors organized a National Covid-19 Remembrance day

The sea of chairs and remembrance ceremony were organized by Covid Survivors for Change, a group of Covid-19 survivors and families of victims, which declared Sunday a national day of remembrance for those who've died from coronavirus. Attendees gathered at the Ellipse, the 52-acre park south of the White House, and listened to stories from people who lost loved ones to the virus.

The event was spurred by a few things, said Chris Kocher, founder of Covid Survivors for Change: The tragedy of 200,000 lives lost, the six-month mark of the pandemic and the absence of national recognition for those killed by coronavirus.

"We are living through this collective national trauma -- we're six months into the pandemic and still sort of reeling from it," Kocher told CNN. "A big part of compounding people's grief ... is the lack of acknowledgment, lack of recognition."

So the group decided on the National Mall, within view of the White House, as the venue where they'd mourn the dead and call lawmakers to action to prevent further deaths.

People like Lisa Billings, an ER nurse from New York, shared how the virus had touched their lives. Billings' brother, Leo, died from the virus three weeks after his admission to the hospital. His death prompted Billings to connect her patients with their family members over the phone to overcome restrictions on visitors.

"For many frontliners like myself, we cared for Covid-19 patients without hesitation, but it didn't mean we didn't sacrifice something as well," Billings said during the ceremony.

The group recruited volunteers to set up the scores of empty chairs -- one chair for every 10 lives lost to coronavirus. Kocher said he wanted a display that "captured the sheer volume of loss," Kocher said.

"The numbers speak for themselves," he said.

The event was organized before President Donald Trump was diagnosed with coronavirus, though nearby in the White House Rose Garden, just one week earlier, the president hosted an event for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett where masks and social distancing were conspicuously absent. Several attendees of that event, including two GOP lawmakers, former counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway and the president and first lady, tested positive for coronavirus days later.

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