‘For us who have lost loved ones, there is no return to normal’
Survivors beg Congress to create COVID memorial day
Janeth Nuñez del Prado and her late father, Hugo. (Courtesy of Janeth Nuñez del Prado)
Janeth Nuñez del Prado’s father Hugo lived in Bolivia and didn’t have access to the vaccine to protect against COVID-19.
He died after catching the virus in May 2021, just two weeks before he was planning to come to the United States to get vaccinated and meet her children for the first time.
Hugo was a fun person who was always the life of the party, Janeth said. He loved to play tennis, dance and sing karaoke.
“When you were with him, it was always an adventure, and you never knew what to expect,” she said. “He wasn’t ready to go, and we weren’t ready for him to leave us. He deserved better.”
After her father died, Nuñez del Prado didn’t know how to move forward and cope with the devastating loss. As a licensed clinical social worker in Albuquerque, she said she was lucky enough to find community with others who helped her to find her voice again, replacing the helplessness she felt with a feeling of agency, power and hope.
Now she is the New Mexico hub leader for Marked by COVID, the largest COVID survivor network in the United States.
“I’ve learned to find meaning in my loss through advocacy, deepening my connections with my friends and family,” Nuñez del Prado said, “and developing new relationships with the amazing other advocates I’ve met in this, for COVID justice and remembrance.”
She was speaking at the second-annual COVID Memorial Day Candlelight Vigil. There were more than 330 participants at the virtual event. They heard from people who have created memorials for those lost to COVID in Arizona, St. Louis and Dallas.
As people shared memories of loved ones and listened to live music, Brenda Salgado tended a ceremonial fire the entire time, reading the names of people lost to the virus and throwing their printed names into the fire. Hundreds of people submitted names prior to the event, and hundreds more put names in the chat as it was happening.
Members of Nuñez del Prado’s family were on the call as well, including her sister Cynthia from California, her tia Lucy in Florida and her three little sisters in Bolivia.
“Though separated by physical distance, we are together, and I know my dad’s with us too,” Nuñez del Prado said. “If COVID has taught me anything, it’s the sacredness of social connections to those close to us, and also to the people throughout the globe.”
Advocates want the first Monday in March to be a federally recognized COVID Memorial Day. There are two companion bills in Congress that would create such a day.
They also hope to construct physical memorials to COVID victims across the country, and they’ve even come up with concept renderings for one envisioned to be built on Civic Plaza in Albuquerque.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) was an original co-sponsor in 2021 of a resolution to create the national memorial day. In a letter to Marked by COVID on Monday, Heinrich wrote that he will continue to push for the resolution to pass.
“Together we mourn the loss of over 925,000 Americans to COVID-19, including more than 6,900 New Mexicans,” the senator wrote. “I am among the many Americans who have lost a loved one to this deadly virus. And I know the particular pain of never getting to say goodbye or gathering to mourn.”
Nuñez del Prado said she is proud that the legislation honors all lives lost to COVID-19, including the more than 6 million people who have died due to the virus across the world. The true toll, both in the United States and elsewhere, is much likely far higher.
“They all mattered,” she said. “My hope is that once we have a federally recognized COVID Memorial Day — and we will get that day — it can serve as a model for the rest of the world, and we can have a World COVID Memorial Day. We can stand together in unity as a globe — in our grief, and in our love.”
Kristin Uquiza, of Arizona, is a founder of Marked by COVID. She said it’s not normal to be losing thousands of people per day to a deadly virus, and it’s not normal to have tens of thousands of people become sick and continue to live with post-viral illness like those living with long COVID.
“This pandemic is not over, and for millions of people, will continue to not be over,” she said. “For us who have lost loved ones, there is no return to normal.”
There’s an entire universe of people who go to work every single day without the protections they need to keep themselves and their families from getting sick, she said, who can’t stay home because they can’t pay rent otherwise, or who are forced to go to work sick.
We must not let anybody push this episode — this pandemic and its horrors — into the memory hole.
– Kristin Uquiza, a founder of Marked by COVID
Through her own grieving of the death of her father to COVID, she learned that we need to remember this time and mark it not only for ourselves but for future generations. And to call into focus the need for society to recognize that the pandemic is a “mass disabling event.”
“This is a humanitarian crisis,” she said. “Our communities continue to need support. We need support. Our loved ones, their lives mattered.”
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