670,000 flags on the National Mall pay tribute to America’s devastating COVID-19 losses

Photograph by Wayne Lawrence, National Geographic
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The sheer number of flags—more than 670,000—forces passersby to pause. Visitors are able to leave tributes to lost loved ones, like this picture taped to a flag. The flags will remain on the mall from September 17 through October 3.

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Beneath the Washington Monument hundreds of thousands of small white flags flutter in the hot breeze. Landscape workers and volunteers walk among them, stooping to plant the flags 10 inches apart until they fill 20 acres of the National Mall. Each flag represents an American life lost to COVID-19.

“One of those lives is my little brother, John,” says Jeneffer Estampador Haynes, who has come to Washington, D.C., from her home in Gaithersburg, Maryland, to volunteer at this memorial art installation called In America: Remember. “He was only 30.”

Born with Down Syndrome, John Estampador “was a big kid who gave the best hugs,” says Haynes. When Estampador, who was affectionately called John John, went into the hospital on January 15 with low oxygen levels from COVID-19, his parents, with whom he lived, also tested positive. They weren’t allowed to visit him, but Haynes was—once a day for 30 minutes. She watched him through the glass door to his room, but she wasn’t permitted inside to hold his hand, to let him know she was there. After 13 days in the hospital, John John died alone on January 28, 2021.

Haynes wants people to know her brother wasn’t just a number.

Numbers have been inescapable during the coronavirus pandemic—case counts, vaccination rates, the death toll. As of this week, one in 500 Americans have died of COVID-19. Any day now, the United States will pass 675,000 deaths—a grim tally that equals the country’s toll from the 1918 flu pandemic, still...

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