660,000 white flags and climbing: This artist shows what America’s COVID-19 death toll looks like

Flags will be added during the memorial’s 17-day run as more people die

Volunteers plant white flags on the National Mall on Wednesday for the "In America: Remember" public art installation commemorating all Americans who have died from COVID-19.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Volunteers plant white flags on the National Mall on Wednesday for the "In America: Remember" public art installation commemorating all Americans who have died from COVID-19. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 16, 2021 at 1:28pm

Jeneffer Haynes is among the roughly 300 volunteers planting a crop of more than 660,000 white flags on the National Mall — it’s a physical representation of the staggering death toll of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. 

One of those flags bears the words “John Estampador.” It’s the name of Haynes’ brother — a 30-year-old born with Down syndrome who always gave her big hugs. He died after contracting COVID-19 in January before he had access to a vaccine. 

“It brings me some form of comfort to keep their memories alive,” she said. “That's what this is all about — to memorialize and keep them alive in some way, shape or form.”

Haynes said she had to take medical leave from her job at a Maryland biotechnology company, suffering from panic attacks and working on her mental health in therapy. Her brother’s death left her whole family with a deep sense of loss, and the virus barely spared the lives of her mom and dad, who lived with Estampador and were sickened in January.

Haynes could only visit her brother through a window for 30 minutes each day while he was in an intensive care unit. She couldn’t go into the room.

“I couldn’t hold his hand, I couldn’t hug him, I couldn’t tell him, ‘Hey, I’m here.’ None of that,” she said. “When he passed away, he was without his family.”

Twenty acres around the Washington Monument are filled with flags representing people who have stories a lot like that one. More flags will be added during the memorial’s 17-day run as the death toll continues to rise, said artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg. 

“We will keep adding flags every day,” Firstenberg said. “I just ordered another 20,000.”

An opening ceremony for the installation will be held at 11 a.m. Friday, and a remembrance event with members of Congress is set for Tuesday morning. The undertaking is the largest participatory art installation on the Mall since the AIDS Quilt, according to Firstenberg and her team.

The Maryland-based artist said she has been making art that addresses social issues for the past 11 years. In 2016, she took a year’s worth of pages from the Congressional Record, folded them into 10,752 paper airplanes, painted them and put them into two big tubs. She suspended a few planes between the two. 

“The planes rose from opposing bins in squadron-like formation. Those few that ‘crossed the political divide’ gained the color purple — the color of reason in politics,” she said on her website

The flags on the Mall are arranged in geometric shapes, many in 60-by-60-foot squares that create nearly 3.8 miles of paths within the massive patchwork. Firstenberg hopes the walking paths will give people a little bit of quiet on the busy stretch, often crowded with tourists.

“I wanted to have enough pathways, where people could wander the paths privately for their own quiet reflection,” she said. “So people would have plenty of special spaces where they could plant their personalized flags.”

People who lost a loved one during the pandemic can dedicate a flag by filling out an online form or coming to the site in person. A digital version of the geotagged flags and their messages will later show up on the installation website, along with a map.

It’s the second time Firstenberg has planted the flags to commemorate the dead. Volunteers in October placed 219,000 flags in a 4-acre field near Northeast Washington’s RFK Stadium. Flags were added each day as the virus killed more people in the U.S., and by the end of the installation’s five-week run on Nov. 30, 267,000 flags stood in the field — a visual representation of the rapidly growing winter death toll. 

Firstenberg said her “outrage” inspired that first installation. She has been a hospice volunteer for the past quarter century and felt the lives of the elderly and people of color were being devalued. “I decided I had to do art to help people understand the extent of this tragedy,” she said. 

To buy the quarter-million flags that were part of the first exhibit, Firstenberg said she “basically defunded” her studio. For this exhibition, she was able to secure donations to cover about two-thirds of the “tens of thousands” of dollars needed to buy the massive number of flags.

At first she considered using American flags to represent the lives lost to COVID-19, but she worried about politicizing her art in an election year and ultimately settled on plain white. “A white flag is perfect because it can be written on,” she said.  “And white is the color of innocence and purity.” 

It just made sense to honor the people who died, Firstenberg said. And once all the flags are planted, she said, the big white block might even be interpreted as a flag of surrender. 

“Early on, we gave in to our lesser selves, and I hope now that seeing all these flags gives our nation a moment to pause and to think about who we are,” she said. “This says something about who we are as Americans.”