President Joe Biden on Monday called for national unity and healing, as the White House held a candlelight vigil to remember victims of the coronavirus after the U.S. death toll climbed past the half-million mark.
“We must end the politics and misinformation that’s divided families, communities and the country,” Biden said from inside the White House. “It’s cost too many lives already. It’s not Democrats and Republicans who are dying from the virus. It’s our fellow Americans. It’s our neighbors, our friends, our mothers, our fathers, our sons, our daughters, husbands, wives. We have to fight this together as one people, as the United States of America. That’s the only way we’re going to beat this virus, I promise you.”
In his emotional address, the president, who has a reputation for wearing his heart on his sleeve, leaned into his own personal family grief to comfort affected Americans.
“For the loved ones left behind: I know all too well. 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,” said Biden, whose first wife and infant daughter died in a car crash, and whose older son, Beau, he lost to brain cancer in 2015.
Biden also emphasized the importance of remembering those who have died, especially during a time when coming together in person is discouraged, and made a promise to the public: “This nation will smile again. This nation will know sunny days again. This nation will know joy again.”
“We often hear people described as ordinary Americans,” he said. “There’s no such thing. There’s nothing ordinary about them. The people we lost were extraordinary. They span generations, born in America, emigrated to America, but just like that, so many of them took their final breath alone in America.”
After his remarks, Biden was joined outside by first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Douglas Emhoff for a moment of silence to mourn the lost lives, a Marine band played “Amazing Grace” in the background and 500 candles — one for every 1,000 deaths — lit the staircases leading up to the balcony of the South Portico.
As the moment of silence concluded, Biden, a devout Catholic with a penchant for quoting Scripture in speeches, crossed himself before heading back inside the White House.
Earlier, at 5 p.m., the White House lowered its flag to honor those who died, after Biden issued an order for all U.S. flags on federal property to be flown at half-staff for five days. At the same time, the Washington National Cathedral began tolling its bell 500 times.
Monday’s event, which comes just over a year after the first confirmed U.S. Covid-19 death, showcased how quickly the virus has spread in the country and how deadly it has been. It was only last month, on the eve of his inauguration, that Biden held a similar vigil at the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate 400,000 lives lost. Biden also noted in his remarks that the number of coronavirus fatalities surpassed that of those who died in World Wars I and II, as well as the Vietnam War, combined.
The nation now finds itself at another inflection point in dealing with the pandemic. As new cases and deaths in the U.S. have fallen significantly from January highs, new variants have caused significant concern, as well as bleak weather conditions in the South that disrupted vaccine distribution. Those factors played into cautiously optimistic remarks Biden made on Friday, while touring a Pfizer manufacturing site in Kalamazoo, Mich.
“I believe we’ll be approaching normalcy by the end of this year,” he said. “And God willing, this Christmas will be different than the last.”
“But I can’t make that commitment to you,” he continued. “There are other strains of the virus. We don’t know what could happen in terms of production rates. Things can change. But we’re doing everything the science has indicated we should do, and people are stepping up to get everything done that has to be done.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top health adviser and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on Sunday noted how quickly the coronavirus had ravaged the U.S. to reach the half-million marker, calling it “terrible” and “really horrible.”
“It’s nothing like we’ve ever been through in the last 102 years, since the 1918 influenza pandemic,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash. “People decades from now are going to be talking about this as a terribly historic milestone in the history of this country.”
The actual number of Covid-19 fatalities, public health officials have said, is likely significantly higher.