OPINION: Wall of hearts sees COVID-19 deaths as loved ones, not numbers

People who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 wrote messages on some of the 5,000 broken hearts hung on the fence outside of the National Museum for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta on Thursday evening, Aug. 27, 2020, as part of the “Loved Ones, Not Numbers” campaign to humanize the toll of the current pandemic. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Unless you’ve had a loved one or friend contract or die from the coronavirus, the millions of Americans that have might seem like just a bunch of numbers.

The numbers and the heartbreak you’re left with “it is what it is,’' just as President Donald Trump has said about the death toll.

But that simply isn’t true. It has never been true.

Those numbers are moms and dads. They are grandmas and grandpas. They are brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. Cousins and friends. People with names and faces. History.

Jana Johnson-Davis knows that, and though she hasn’t lost a close relative to COVID-19, her close friends have.

As those numbers started to grow, as the pain of loss started to spread far beyond her circle of friends, Johnson-Davis’ heart broke. Who were they?, she wondered. What was their favorite thing in the world to do? What made them laugh and cry?

In other words, what made them human?

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Had we not been in the middle of a pandemic, we might have gathered at a place of worship to celebrate their lives, but the need to social distance made that impossible. Even as we adapted to the times and began holding virtual life celebrations, it wasn’t the same.

Johnson-Davis decided to create an online pictorial memorial, LovedOnesNotNumbers.com, as a way to remember lost loved ones, asking people to note one thing they’d like the world to know about each of them.

Catolyn Merriweather, whose mother JoeAnn Snead died from COVID-19 in April, helps hang 5,000 broken hearts on the fence outside of the National Museum for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta on Thursday evening Aug. 27, 2020, as part of the “Loved Ones, Not Numbers” campaign to humanize the toll of the current pandemic. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Photos of lost loved ones flowed in, but it soon slowed. People, she said, started to hold back, unwilling to endure the stigma associated with that.

“Not only were people grieving alone, they were embarrassed,” Johnson-Davis said.

The real tragedy in that, she said, is none of these people had to die.

“Many of these deaths could’ve been prevented if the state had not moved so quickly to reopen,” Johnson-Davis said. “More deaths can be prevented if the state mandates masks.”

It is against that backdrop, Johnson-Davis, a self-described DeKalb County social justice activist, told me that the Georgia Coalition 2 Save Lives and “Loved Ones, Not Numbers” came to be.

The coalition is made up of over 100 lawyers, civil and human rights organizations, faith leaders, community members, and elected officials working to save the lives of Georgia’s citizens who they believe will face life-threatening consequences as a result of Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to reopen the state for business so early and his refusal to issue a statewide mandate to wear masks during the pandemic.

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To drive home the pandemic’s impact on the state, the coalition last week gathered at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights to unveil the “Loved Ones, Not Numbers Memorial Wall” comprised of 5,000 broken hearts symbolizing the approximately 5,500 loved ones — and counting — lost to COVID-19 in Georgia.

The number 5,000 is projected on the Georgia Capitol to illustrate the more than 5,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in Georgia. This followed a march Thursday evening Aug. 27, 2020, as part of the “Loved Ones, Not Numbers” campaign to humanize the toll of the current pandemic. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

“When we started planning this memorial at the beginning of August, we were at 3,800 deaths,” said Clare Schexnyder, a Decatur resident and coalition member. “Now, just three weeks later, we’ve surpassed 5,300. We all know these deaths will continue to rise. The infection will continue to spread if we don’t do anything to stop it.”

In addition to wanting a statewide mask ordinance, the coalition is calling for Kemp to close nightclubs, bars and gyms, and increase rapid testing across the state for all of its citizens.

“In cities and counties where masks have been mandated, we’ve seen the cases go down,” Schexnyder said. “Without a doubt, masks cut transmission. And they make business owners and citizens feel safer being out. A real empathetic leader would mandate mask-wearing across the state to save lives.”

They believe you can’t have a strong economy unless the coronavirus is contained and, until the governor acts, Georgia citizens will continue to suffer.

“This is a moment to send a message to the governor to say not one more death,” Schexnyder said. “Do your job. Protect Georgia’s citizens.”

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Members of the coalition, including state Reps. William Boddie and Kim Schofield, asked to meet with the governor but were referred to his Coronavirus Task Force Community Outreach Subcommittee instead.

Candice L. Broce, director of communications for the governor’s office, said the governor asked the coalition to “first consider meeting” the subcommittee because “it’s a great group of people working on similar initiatives.”

That was in July, Broce said, but the coalition wasn’t interested.

Attorney Mawuli Davis, co-chair of the coalition, said they declined the invitation because the committee is not the ultimate decision-maker. The governor is.

“To have so many organizations with such deep roots in the human and civil rights movement to be pawned off on a committee after the seriousness of this situation shows a lack of respect for the African American community,” Davis said. “This coalition was formed to save the lives of Georgians, and we need to be a part of the planning. This is not complicated. This is fundamental to governing the entire population.”

Last week, following the unveiling of the Memorial Wall, the coalition led a candlelight march to the Capitol and held a vigil in front of the closed gates where National Guard troops were guarding the empty government building.

Two nights earlier a crowd gathered at Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta to protest the recent shooting of a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, by police. The protest was broken up after a police precinct was damaged. Kemp has deployed the National Guard to patrol government buildings as a precaution multiple times during the pandemic and during protests this summer.

Davis said the troop presence at the Capitol proved the governor had the wrong priorities.

“He chooses to use troops to protect empty buildings,” he said of the governor. “Where is the protection for the citizens of this state who need it most?”

(National Guard troops also have been tapped for various tasks in Georgia during the coronavirus crisis, such as helping with food banks and going to nursing homes to help with testing and cleaning facilities.)

Faith leaders closed the evening praying for empathetic leadership and action.

Kemp, of course, was not there.

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