Nicole Acevedo, NBC News
They lost loved ones to the pandemic. They're pushing for a Covid Memorial Day.
Janeth Nuñez del Prado sees so much of her late father in her 5-year-old daughter — particularly when the little girl asks her to sing along to Myriam Hernández's Spanish-language hit "Mío" from 1990, one of her father's favorite songs.
Her father, Hugo, "was in his prime" at age 62, Nuñez del Prado said. He played tennis daily and even ran a half-marathon with his youngest daughter.
"He loved singing karaoke and dancing. He was the life of the party," she said.
But 10 months ago, Hugo died of Covid-19, days before he was to board a flight from Bolivia to the U.S. to get vaccinated after not being able to receive a Covid-19 vaccine in his home country.
“It's just that failure of vaccine equity,” decried Nuñez del Prado, who lives in New Mexico. "That makes me very angry. It haunts me, he almost made it."
Nuñez del Prado is joining hundreds of other grief-stricken U.S. families in a virtual public vigil on Monday to honor the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people killed by Covid-19, which was designated a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020.
Also among them is Fiana Paulette Garza. Her mother, Isabelle Papadimitriou, who was of Mexican descent, was a respiratory therapist from Texas who forwent retirement to help patients during the pandemic. She died of Covid-19 on July 4, 2020, at age 64.
This is the second year the national grassroots nonprofit Marked By Covid hosts the virtual vigil for people to "observe a moment of silence together as a community," co-founder Kristin Urquiza said.
Urquiza started the nonprofit after her father’s Covid-19 death. Mark Anthony Urquiza, 65, died in an Arizona intensive care unit on June 30, 2020 — approximately three weeks after the state lifted its stay-at-home order.
Urquiza, Nuñez del Prado and other advocates are now mobilizing people in more than 100 cities across several states to get Congress to designate the first Monday of every March as Covid-19 Victims and Survivors Memorial Day to memorialize those lost and those affected by loss during the pandemic.
Bereaved families, people grappling with long Covid and those who work essential jobs have sent letters and called lawmakers to urge them to give priority to this memorialization, said Urquiza, whose organization, Marked By Covid, is spearheading the effort
“The U.S. needs a permanent commemoration to remember the victims of the pandemic and their families — and to recognize those who have experienced a number of consequences from Covid,” Garza said.
“The day should also be an opportunity to extend our gratitude and recognition to those who have worked tirelessly to get us through the pandemic — even risking their lives, like my mom. Their efforts must not be forgotten,” Garza added.
Marked By Covid is also in the early stages of creating a physical space to remember the victims of the pandemic and their families. The organization is currently working on getting designs from artists and others to create a permanent memorial, Urquiza said.
Pushing for what 'should be obvious'
Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz., introduced a House resolution last year to federally recognize Covid-19 Victims and Survivors Memorial Day. While it is co-sponsored by 65 lawmakers, all Democrats, the resolution has not yet been approved.
When Stanton introduced the resolution, the country was mourning half a million Covid-19 deaths, he said on the House floor on March 1, 2021.
"Tragically, many of them died alone, without loved ones to say goodbye," Stanton said. "This memorial day is an important marker for all those affected across the country and to help our country heal from this trauma."
But the number of Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. has nearly doubled since Stanton's House floor speech, surpassing 960,000 deaths nationwide.
"We’re about to reach 1 million deaths in the U.S. This is no joke," Garza said.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., introduced a similar resolution in August, which was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pension. While it counts 15 co-sponsors, all Democrats, that resolution also awaits action.
“It’s just a shame we are having to push for something like this. It should be obvious,” Garza said.
When you look at the resolution’s language, “it’s dedicated to all lives lost to Covid-19. Not just U.S. lives, but all lives lost," Nuñez del Prado said. “It’s a way to honor everyone around the world, too.”
So far, more than 6 million have died of the coronavirus since January 2020, according to Johns Hopkins University.
For Urquiza, the biggest challenge advocates face in convincing Congress to federally recognize a Covid memorial day is "we have people on both sides of the aisle who’ve made mistakes.
"Our elected officials are holding two truths at the same time. One, they do recognize something like memorializing our lost loved ones as a no-brainer, as necessary," Urquiza said. "But it also helps solidify that this was real, that it had a really big impact on our lives, and that their leadership, their policies, played a role in getting us to where we're at right now."
For Nuñez del Prado, another challenge is "just how our loved ones' losses have been so politicized."
"Covid has divided our communities, all of these issues like school closures and vaccines and masks are just ripping apart communities, even families and friendships," said Nuñez del Prado. "I think a Covid memorial day is a way to come back together."
Healing, without glossing over history
The pandemic took away an opportunity from Nuñez del Prado's children, 5 and 2 years old, to meet their grandfather Hugo.
Her voice breaks as she recalls the moment she had to explain to them how Covid-19 killed him. At home, her children draw pictures as "ofrendas," or offerings, to him.
Her 5-year-old daughter regrets never meeting him, but she says "I know he sees me, he's in heaven," according to Nuñez del Prado.
As her family and others cope, getting "national recognition that our pain is real" is a good start, Nuñez del Prado said.
“Getting this day federally recognized would be a huge gift for so many of us,” she said.
Nuñez del Prado, who is a social worker, said that the "key to healing from trauma is to give it space and to give it words — and process really complicated emotions in community."
"Everyone is trying to move on in really unhealthy ways, just repressing the feelings and avoiding it or denying it," she said.
For Urquiza, having the Covid tragedy recognized by the federal government could help curb the "long history of revisionist history in this country."
"This is an opportunity for learning and for codifying those lessons learned," she said, "and thinking about it as gifting the wisdom of our lived experience to future generations."