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Iowans Hold COVID Memorial At State Capitol To Mourn More Than 5,500 Dead

A COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston on July 28.
Go Nakamura / Getty Images
Getty Images
A COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston on July 28.

Mourners held a memorial ceremony Tuesday on the steps outside the Iowa state capitol to honor the more than 5,000 Iowans who have died of COVID-19. One year into the coronavirus pandemic, Iowa has one of the highest per capita infection rates in the nation, with more than one in 10 Iowans having contracted the virus.

Standing outside the capitol, a group of bell ringers took turns marking the lives of Iowans lost to COVID by ringing their bells. Among the dead are school bus drivers, longtime teachers, beloved grandparents, neighborhood postal workers, refugees who fled civil wars, and a Holocaust survivor. The tolling of the bells went on for an hour.

Faith leaders, activists and family members were among those who gathered outside the capitol to mourn the 5,574 Iowans who have died of COVID. They spoke of the disproportionate impacts to the state’s hardest-hit communities, including immigrants, people of color, incarcerated individuals and meatpacking workers and the more than half a million lives lost across the country.

“Where is the collective mourning? 500,000 dead and rising,” said Giovanni Bahena, reading from a poem written by local writer Aidan Zingler. “We should mourn. We will mourn. We must.”

Some of the speakers harshly criticized Gov. Kim Reynolds’ handling of the pandemic, lambasting her for refusing to implement a shelter in place order and resisting public health officials’ calls for a robust mask mandate.

Public health experts have said the relative lack of public health policies and rollback of preventative measures further exacerbated Iowa’s high levels of community transmission, levels which resulted in “many preventable deaths," according to a report issued last fall by the White House Coronavirus Task Force last fall.

Pastor Emily Ewing of Trinity Las Américas United Methodist Church described it as a “shameful legacy of death," saying “it never had to be this way."

Ewing urged the mourners to turn their grief and anger into positive action, echoing the Jewish expression of condolence for those who have died, “may their memory be a blessing."

“Today we say not only may their memories be for blessing, but may they also be for action, for love, for justice in this state,” Ewing said. “Because our hope cannot die with them. It is not yet over. There is still time to change course in this pandemic.”

Others advocated for Iowans to continue pressing lawmakers for expanded coronavirus aid and workplace safety protections such as those outlined in the Iowa Workers Bill of Rights proposal.

“Iowans everyday are battling this pandemic with little to no government support,” said Linda Brown, an organizer with the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement “I ask what is home when the people who make it whole are missing? When those who lead do nothing while people in this state scramble to make ends meet, to pay rent, to take care of their children?”

Reynolds has consistently said she’s sought to find a balance between implementing public health precautions keeping the economy going.

"I don't want to over-restrict. I think you have to be careful of doing that," she said in December. "As the governor of the state of Iowa, I have to find that balance to protect the life and livelihoods of Iowans."

A spokesperson for Reynolds did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday’s memorial.

At the end of the event, mourners took turns gathering armfuls of flowers and placing them in a coffin as the bells tolled for the dead. Filled with carnations, roses and lilies and wrapped in an Iowa flag, a group carried the coffin inside the capitol building, placing it outside the governor’s staff offices on the ground floor.

Despite Reynolds’ efforts, one year into the pandemic, tens of thousands of Iowans have struggled to keep up with rent and utility payments, and scores have left the workforce entirely, making the state’s unemployment rate appear deceptively low.

And the virus has taken hold across the state; Iowa has among the highest per capita infection rates and per capita death rates in the nation, according to analysis published by NPR.

Editor's note: this story has been updated to reflect that the poem read by Giovanni Bahena was written by Aidan Zingler.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter